Perceptive Listening: Intelligence Gathering for Conflict Management

Many years ago, I was teaching a course to healthcare workers which featured a section on Active Listening. One of my participants interrupted me (ironic, I know) and said something that has stayed with me ever since. “Most people don’t actually listen, they’re just waiting for their turn to talk.”

That struck me because I recognised the truth in what was being said, and I could see it in myself as well. How often during a conversation did I mentally switch to preparing my next statement/rebuttal instead of actually listening to the person in front of me?

I knew at a fundamental level that when managing conflict, listening is far more important than talking. Any great negotiator knows that there should be an 80/20 split between listening and talking. Save your words for when you have something impactful to say. Until then, listen!

This is when I started to use the phrase Perceptive Listening.

The problem with “Active” Listening

Other than being a bit of a corporate cliché, there’s nothing wrong with the practice of active listening. The tenets of active listening are usually taught something like this:

  • Pay attention and limit your distractions
  • Show that you’re listening through non-verbal signals like smiles and nods
  • Demonstrate open and engaged body language
  • Provide verbal prompts like “I see…” and “uh huh…”
  • Offer feedback and reflections such as “What I’m hearing is…” or “Sounds like…”
  • Defer judgement until you’ve heard the entire story
  • Summarise understanding with a statement such as “So I can make sure I’ve understood correctly, what you’re saying is…”

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s good practice, especially in general, civil conversation. But the majority of the points above are actually about making the other person feel heard and respected (a good thing), not furthering our own understanding of the problem.

To maximise our listening, we need to go a step further.

It’s not just about hearing

Perceptive listening is exclusively focused on understanding the nuances of the conflict in front of you. It’s about identifying all of the information that is being offered – verbally, para-verbally, non-verbally and even in silence. It is immersing ourselves in the reality of another, driven by curiosity, to fully grasp their worldview.

Through perceptive listening we seek to identify the challenges and ambitions of the person in front of us (or on the phone with us, as the case may be.)

Here are some basic pointers on how to apply perceptive listening:

On first contact, assume you know nothing about the person and potentially have been misinformed about them. This is important for deferring judgement and not getting too caught up in our own narrative which can lead to us missing vital clues about the true nature of the conflict. Start with a blank canvas.

Project an aura of calm, confidence and safety. If you want someone to open up to you, you need to create a reason for them to trust you. Think about when you have instinctively trusted a stranger. What was it about them that made you decide to do so? Most likely that stranger seemed quite calm about the situation, highly competent in their job, and you didn’t perceive a threat to your own well-being from them.

Contrast that to how we often manage conflict – in a state of heightened arousal, emotional, flustered and threatening consequences every other breath. Slow down, make them feel safe with you.

Collect as much visual information as possible. Everything is communication. The clothing someone is wearing, their posture, their stance, the lines on their face, their tattoos, even their grooming can contain valuable conflict data. The perceptive listener catalogues all of this. It is important that this is not used to typecast (see point one above) but rather stored as additional values to support or question a future hypotheses.

Discipline your mind to stay with the conversation. Don’t allow yourself to wonder, dream or start planning your response. If the communication is happening over the phone, keep a notepad beside you to scribble down things that seem important. This will help your brain stay focused in the moment without fear of forgetting something.

Pay attention not just to the words that are said, but how they were said. Is their body language and facial expression congruent with the words they are saying? If not, why not? Are they being deceptive? Are they trying to play a part? Are they scared? What about their tone of voice? People typically raise their pitch slightly when they are stressed or uncomfortable. This can be another sign of furtiveness.

Engage in the conversation using deliberate fishing techniques. An example of this might be testing a hypothesis such as “Sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences with the law before.” If they become defensive about this (higher pitched voice, denial, change in distancing, closed off body language) it might indicate they’re fearful of future consequences. If they give a more stable response, it might indicate that this isn’t a stressor for them in the moment.

I sometimes use questions about new topics to the same end “Tell me about your friend over there…” or “Have you had this problem before?” Critically, I’m less interested in how they answer these questions than I am in what their physiological response to the topic tells me.

Understand the power of silence. A lot of us can be very uncomfortable with silence. We feel the need to fill it. But, communication isn’t just the words we say. The spaces between the words can be often be even more important. If you ask a question and the other party takes an uncharacteristic pause before answering, that is usually an indication that they are attempting to choose their words wisely. This could indicate that their immediate (emotional) response is somehow incriminating, or perhaps that they feel that need to be strategic about what information they give. This, on its own, is valuable information.

On the other side of the silence coin, the easiest way to get more information out of someone is to just be silent. The desire to fill the space is mutual. Silence can sometimes be perceived as a challenge to further justify a point, which might lead to them blurting out more information than they had originally planned to divulge.

Next step: Developing hypotheses and a conflict resolution strategy

While Perceptive Listening is ostensibly an information-gathering exercise, sometimes doing it well actually resolves the conflict. By being in the moment and really seeking to understand, it can make a stressed out person feel heard, supported and valued. On other occasions, we will need to use the information we’ve now gathered to decide upon a strategy to manage the situation. That will be a topic for future articles.

Here’s to productive listening and better relationships.

Written by Joe Saunders F.ISRM AARPI RPP