People often fail to listen effectively to the other party, resulting in strained relations and business negotiations falling through.

Poor listening skills are at the root of many problems which people encounter in ineffective communication or miscommunication.

Start taking steps towards listening well before speaking, so you can be more attuned to the interests of other people. This will enable you to adapt your own interests to meet theirs for more win-win collaborative situations and to build better relationships in the long term.

Modes of conflict

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management-of-Differences (MODE) scale is widely used in research and training on group behaviour and team dynamics. It identifies five different styles of conflict: competing (assertive, uncooperative); avoiding (unassertive, uncooperative); accommodating (unassertive, cooperative); collaborating (assertive, cooperative); and compromising (intermediate assertiveness and cooperativeness).

Of these, the collaborating mode is the most useful for people to identify commonalities and to work out a win-win situation. It highlights the importance of identifying your individual interests and to not start taking positions so that both parties arrive at a win-win situation more quickly.

Focus on interests

It is a human tendency to focus on positions once a disagreement arises. People easily fall into their defensive behaviours and insist on their positions, regardless of their legitimacy.

But the collaborating mode calls for a paradigm shift, where interests — not positions —define the problem. Focusing on positions is backward-looking but interests are forward-focused.

In a negotiation situation, a person will not do anything unless he feels it is in his best interest to do so. Hence, pay complete attention to everything that he has to say. Make him feel that he is important to you instead of being in too much of a hurry to keep repeating your position or preferences. By showing that you have regard for the other party’s interests, you gradually lead him to consider yours.

Identify needs first

Objections can also be a way of expressing needs but do so at a later stage. It’s better that you find out these needs by proactively questioning the other party at the outset.

You can do so by probing the other party with questions that elicit the information that you want about his needs that you want. Questions are also necessary to clarify potential objections to what you say.

Alternatively, you can observe the other party and pre-empt some of the likely objections that will be raised. Pay close attention to the words used by the other person. You can pick up signals by their choice of words. Clarify at the end by saying, “I understand that you are concerned about…”

Even the most carefully thought-out suggestion or proposal can meet with resistance. Resistance may be due to disagreement on technical grounds or for philosophical reasons — for example, someone may believe that companies should outsource as little as possible.

When you practise good listening, you will be able to identify the other party’s interests more quickly and accurately, think about what is driving him to resist your proposal and adapt your response accordingly.

Understand your opponent’s emotions and attempt to address those feelings of fear or distrust. This cannot be achieved without first applying your ability to listen before speaking.

If people can listen better in their dealings with loved ones and business associates, they will communicate more effectively, and this will benefit everyone.