Are you learning in conflict?

In conflict situations, the way we say what we say often leads to more problems.

In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors Stone, Patton and Heen present two stances, or ways interacting with the others: Telling and Learning. In moments of stress, most of us reactively shift into a telling stance. If others disagree with our brilliant idea, they are obviously wrong. We instantly see others as a threat, and our rational minds go into overdrive arguing, defending, or going to silence to get our way. Our pride in our beliefs comes across as hubris— over bearing confidence—and we quickly set the stage for an us verses them experience.

If we do stay engaged in the conversation, others feel it as pretense—we’re listening in order to defend our idea or argue against what the other person says, or we’re just biding time before we do what we want anyway. Others often feel dismissed in telling conversations. They believe their ideas or concerns have not been considered. Not only has the quality of information shared been compromised, but also the relationship. 

Another way to engage with others, especially in stressful situations, is what the authors refer to as the Learning Stance. Instead of telling others what you believe, lead with curiosity. You realize that you know what you know, and are confident in what you understand, but also realize that the other person holds useful information and perspectives that you lack. You are curious about the thoughts, feelings, experiences, and insights of others. You listen, ask questions, and explore others’ meaning.

Instead of arrogance, others experience you as humble—open to learning from them. You seem present in the conversation, engaged, and caring. Others feel acknowledged by you. They feel you respect their thoughts—and them as people— because you listened openly. You don’t have to agree with what has been said, but the very act of listening with the intent of understanding allows the other to feel heard and acknowledged.

To move from a Telling to a Learning stance requires an internal reorientation. If you notice you feel certain about your point of view, get curious. What don’t you know that would help you understand the situation more fully? If you notice the conversation has become a debate and you are starting to argue or defend your point, explore what the other person knows. You will probably realize that the situation is not as simple as you had thought. By exploring others’ perspectives, you learn about the true complexity of the situation. And by creating the conditions for learning together, you may realize the options are greater than you imagined. Instead of “either/or” thinking—either you are right or they are right—you move to ‘and’ thinking—finding a third way that no one had anticipated before you started learning together.

A learning stance helps you express your views and feelings so that you can be heard. By listening to others first, you help them to lower their resistance to your ideas. You create room for others to share and feel heard. They tend to reciprocate and want to hear you. By shifting to the learning stance, you model behaviors that influence others to act similarly, often without even realizing it. A learning stance helps you build trust and create a safe process for problem-solving together.

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