By Donna Lee Schillinger
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing her own opinions. Proverbs 18:2
Have you ever been in a formal debate? If you have, you probably realized quickly that while your opponent is speaking, you have to listen carefully enough to catch the key points of her side of the argument, but most of your mental energy is spent forming your rebuttal. Debate is not a conversation in which two people should openly listen to each other – it’s a competition.
Some people approach conversation as if it were a debate. As you talk to them, you can see after a few seconds they’ve turned on their auto-pilot response system so they can slip away mentally to formulate their next point. Once they’ve got it ready, they take over the controls again and you can read in their faces, “Hurry up and finish, I have something to say.” You know what I’m talking about and you may have been guilty of this yourself. I know I have been.
A conversation like that is bad enough; it’s worse yet to be in an argument with this type of person. You can never make a point because the other person is too busy formulating her next point to listen to yours. And so you go round and round chasing each other’s tails. Would you like to know how to stop that chase? Just listen. No… that’s it – just listen.
It’s up to you to just listen – if you can’t get the other person to acknowledge even one point, you’ll not likely be successful at persuading her to just listen. So you take the lead and just listen to her. This is not giving up or giving in – it’s getting somewhere. Try it.
The next time you butt up against a contrary opinion and you find yourself engaged in what seems to be an endless and hopeless debate, try this tactic. Just listen. Let your “opponent” completely air her grievance until there is nothing left to say. Don’t interrupt. If she says something like, “Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” you can say, “I just want to fully understand your opinion, so keep talking.”
I know it sounds crazy but these are tried-and-true strategies I learned and practiced as a court-certified mediator. In even some of the most complicated divorce cases, I found people willing to concede things they had, at first, staunchly opposed for the simple reason that they felt they had finally been heard and understood.
There is great power in acknowledging someone else’s opinion and affirming their emotions. It will often completely diffuse an argument. The whole point of the argument may just have been, “I want you to get it!” and once you sincerely communicate that you do “get it,” through listening, affirming that you understand why your friend feels as she does and apologizing, if for nothing else, for the fact that she has been distressed, the argument may be over. That doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is solved, but it’s easier to seek a solution when you’re not arguing.
Then there are those who simply like to argue. It’s like a sport to them. There’s not likely to be a resolution with that kind of a person. You’re just a guest at one of their jaw jam sessions. Listen closely to that person too. The lines seem rehearsed, like maybe he has had this argument before, maybe a dozen times before. Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into being this week’s special guest for another episode of the same ole argument. Again, the best way out is to just listen and then when you’re able, say something polite like, “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” as you quickly make your exit stage left.
We can’t live in this world without clashing with other people from time to time. Even if you try to avoid argument, it’s not possible all the time. When your time comes, look for the lesson – take pleasure in understanding another person by giving them the floor and your full attention. If the matter can be resolved, your dedicated listening is the quickest way to bring a resolution about. If in your listening you realize you’re arguing with a fool who likes to hear himself talk – yield the field and enjoy the event.
Hold this thought: I sincerely want to understand opinions that differ from my own.
By Donna Lee Schillinger