Constructive Communication

So much has been written about communication that I scarcely know where to begin, nor what I should include and what I should leave out. I have finally decided to share with you only the skills that I use successfully myself, and that I share during my equine-assisted personal development sessions.

Focused Listening

The first skill I would like to share with you is the one that I call focused listening. My definition of focused listening is when you give the person who is talking your full attention, when you focus 100% on what the other person is saying, as well as what they are not saying. You listen with your heart, mind, body and soul.

Agreeing to disagree can dissolve a conflict, but it does not get you anywhere. To communicate constructively, to disagree productively and find common ground, you first need to make sure you understand exactly what the other person is trying to say.

This means you need to be 100% present in the moment. You are not still thinking about what you have just said, or what you want to say next. You listen carefully, not just to the words, but to the meaning behind the words. Not just to what the other person is saying, but also to what he/she is not saying.

You absorb what you hear and then acknowledge it by repeating it back to the other person, asking for clarification as you go along. “I want to understand what you mean. Have I got it right that you mean…” is a good way to start, keeping the tone of your voice neutral. Just parroting what the other person said is useless. The idea is to make the other person feel understood, by making sure you understand what they are sharing, whether you agree with them or not. By doing this, you will, in addition, get your conversation partner’s full attention.

By listening and then repeating back in your own words the essence of what you have just heard, from the speaker’s point of view, you allow the speaker to feel the satisfaction of being taken seriously. Focused listening is a great way of letting people know that their opinion is important to you, that you care about what they think, even if you do not agree.  

Whenever we are upset about something our capacity to listen is greatly diminished. The same goes for the other person. Focused listening is not just about understanding what someone else is saying, it is also about understanding their feelings about what they are saying. Trying to convince another that they are wrong, without acknowledging their feelings first, will usually cause the other person to try even harder to get their emotions recognised.

Focused listening is a compliment.

On the other hand, once people feel that their meaning and emotions have been acknowledged, they start to relax and listen more attentively. For example, in a hospital, a nurse might say, after listening to a patient: “I understand that you are very uncomfortable right now, Sue, and I take on board that you would really like to get out of that bed and move around. But your doctor says your bones won’t heal unless you stay put for another week.”  The patient in this example is much more likely to listen to the nurse than if the nurse simply said: “Sue, you have to stay in bed. Your doctor says your bones won’t heal unless you stay put for another week.”   What is missing in this second version is any acknowledgement of the patient’s present experience and emotions.

Acknowledgement is not agreement.

Acknowledging another person’s thoughts, ideas and feelings still leaves you the option of agreeing or disagreeing with that person. With practice, we can learn, by listening attentively, to respond first with a simple acknowledgement. As we do this, we often find that we can give your conversation partners at least half of what they want – acknowledgement, if not agreement – even if we can’t give them all they want. In many conflict situations that will lead to productive disagreement and finding common ground. Our conversation partners will also be more likely to acknowledge our position, even if they disagree.

Focused listening is the first step towards productively disagreeing.

It is not easy to master this skill, and it feels very artificial, initially. You can start by, as you listen to the important people in your life, giving very brief summaries of the experiences they are talking about and naming the feeling that appears to be at the heart of the experience. If you can identify with what the other person is experiencing, then in your tone of voice (as you summarize what another person is going through), express a little of the feeling your conversation partner is expressing. (Emotionally flat summaries feel artificial.)

Even more effective, is to “listen” focusedly and check that you have understood correctly when you receive an e-mail or have a discussion by online.

Focused Listening increases our self-esteem.

Focused listening also teaches us how to hold our own ground while we restate someone else’s position. This requires practice. We also have to be able to listen to people’s criticisms or complaints without becoming disoriented or losing our sense of self-worth. In spite of the difficulty of mastering the art of focused listening, the result of listening this way has been so positive that I have found it well worth the effort required.

Focused Listening Exercise: Find a practice partner. Take turns telling each other about significant events from your past. As you listen to your practice partner, tell him/her what you understood about what they were sharing as well as about the emotions they were experiencing. Check your accuracy with your partner.

Part 2 Communication Etiquette



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