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How to Listen When Your Communication Styles Don’t Match

by Mark Goulston

Quick Takes

  • Let those who vent or scream blow off steam
  • Be patient with those who explain or belabor
  • Notice language the speaker uses about strong emotions
  • Ask follow-up questions to help the person process their feelings
  • Check that what they said and what you heard match

Why do people who consider themselves good communicators often fail to actually hear each other? Often, it’s due to a mismatch of styles: To someone who prefers to vent, someone who prefers to explain seems patronizing; explainers experience those who vent as volatile.

This is why so many of us see our conversational counter parts as lecturing, belaboring, talking down to us, or even shaming us (if we vent and they explain) or as invasive, out of control, and overly emotional (if we explain and they vent).

Facing this kind of mismatch, what do you think the chances are either person actually listens with an open mind?

My answer is . . . very low. It is tempting to say zero, but since it’s not possible (or even desirable) to interact only with people whose communication style matches yours, you need to develop the skill to listen, regardless of style.

This can be incredibly effortful. When someone is either venting or screaming or explaining or belaboring, it triggers a part of your middle emotional brain called the amygdala, which desperately wants to hijack your attentive listening and instead react reflexively with whatever your hardwired reactions are. And resisting that amygdala hijack is exhausting.

What to Do with Someone Who Vents or Screams

If your conversational counterpart vents or screams, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to tell them to calm down (which will only make them more upset), to shut down and be silent (which will only make them yell longer, because they’ll think you’re not listening), or to try to point out how irrational venting is (which, as noted above, they will perceive as patronizing and belaboring).

Instead, say to yourself, “OK, here comes another temper tantrum. Just let them blow up. Try not to take it between the eyes, and imagine you’re looking into the calm eye of a hurricane and the storm is going over your shoulder.”

To do this, focus on their left eye. The left eye is connected to the right brain—the emotional brain. Let them finish. Then say something like, “I can see you’re really frustrated. To make sure I don’t add to that, and to make sure I don’t miss something, what is the most important thing I need to do in the long term? What’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?” Reframing the conversation this way, after they’ve finished venting, will make sure that your “explainer” self knows what to do—instead of ignoring the venting as another random outburst. Chances are they have something important they’re trying to tell you, even though they’re not communicating it very well.

Three Questions to Ask When Someone Is Venting

by Mark Goulston

When you’re faced with an upset customer, client, employee, shareholder, child, parent, spouse, or friend, it can feel as if they’re bulging with emotion and about to explode. Jumping in and giving advice or sitting there silently aren’t your only options. To help the person process their feelings—and have a productive conversation—ask three questions:

  1. What are you most frustrated about? Asking your counterpart about the source of their frustration allows them to vent. When they finish, pick any of their words that had a lot of emotion attached. These can be words such as “never,” “screwed up,” or any other words spoken with high inflection. Say something like, “Say more about ‘never’ [or ‘screwed up,’ etc.]” to help them release more of their built-up pressure.
  2. What are you most angry about? Go deeper by asking them to say more about what they’re most angry about. Don’t take issue with them or get into a debate; just know that they really need to get this off their chest—if you listen without interrupting them, while also inviting them to say even more, they will.
  3. What are you really worried about? Ask about their main worry—the core of their emotional wound. If you have listened and not taken issue with their frustration and anger, they will speak to you about what they’re really worried about. Encourage them to go deeper by again asking them, “Say more about . . .” After they finish, respond with something like, “Now I understand why you are so frustrated, angry, and worried. Since we can’t turn back time, let’s put our heads together to check out your options from here. OK?”

When people are upset, it matters less what you tell them than what you enable them to tell you. After they get their feelings off their chest, that’s when they can then have a constructive conversation with you.

Adapted from “How to Listen When Someone Is Venting,” by Mark Goulston, posted on hbr.org, May 9, 2013.

After they respond, say to them, “What you just said is much too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I’m on the same page as you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat exactly, word for word, what they said. After you finish, say, “Did I get that right and, if not, what did I miss?” Forcing them to listen to what you said they said, “because it was important,” will slow them down, will help you stay centered and in control, and will earn you respect.

What to Do with Someone Who Explains or Belabors

If your conversational counterpart is an explainer, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to say to yourself, “Here they go again; make sure you smile politely even if you want to pull your hair out. Try not to let your impatience and annoyance show.” The problem with this is that even though they may be oblivious to others as they go on and on, at some level they may be aware of your underlying impatience and that might actually make them talk longer. Yikes.

Realize that the reason they explain and belabor things is probably because their experience is that people don’t pay attention to what they say. While that may be true of some distracted people, for others, it’s that the speaker is belaboring something that the listener already heard—and doesn’t want to hear over and over again. Another possibility is that these explainers may not be feeling listened to somewhere else in their lives (by their spouse, kids, parents, or boss) and are now relieved to have you as a captive audience.

When the explainer goes into explanation, lecture, or filibuster mode, say to yourself, “OK, this is going to take a while.” Put a mental bookmark in whatever you were working on. Then look them in their left eye and try to signal, “OK, take your time. I’m fully listening.” Instead of feeling frustrated and reacting by becoming impatient and fidgety, remind yourself, “They need to do this. I can be patient.”

When they finish, apply a similar response to the person who vents or screams with the following minor edit: “I can see that you really had a lot that you had to say. To make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?”

After they respond, say something like, “What you just said is way too important for me to have misunderstood a word, so I’m going to say it back to you to make sure I’m on the same page as you. Here’s what I heard.” Then repeat exactly, word for word, what they said. After you finish, say, “Did I get that right, and if not, what did I miss?”

Your amygdala is probably saying, “I don’t want to do either of those things. These people are obnoxious and unreasonable. Why should I kowtow to them?”

Here are several reasons:

  • They aren’t likely to change. These are deeply ingrained personality traits.
  • Being more open and inviting them to talk will lessen their need to act this way. Listening patiently hath charm to soothe the savage (or boring) beast.
  • You will feel more self-respect and self-esteem. These approaches will enable you to remain cool, calm, collected, centered, and communicative in a situation that formerly frustrated you and made you react poorly.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, October 9, 2013.

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