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Home > Uncategorized > Understanding ≠ agreement
One key set of skills for community builders centers around fostering open and trusting communication. This only makes sense as communication is the very “stuff” of personal relationships. To that end we’ve been learning about and experimenting with deep listening and open questions. Speaking for myself, I have found this work very useful and a source of great growth. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Specifically I want to share an example which shows how deep listening and open questions can be difficult in situations where the speaker and the listener both have shared stakes in some issue.
Deep listening and open questions are invaluable tools for understanding people better and making them feel understood. This is great because those feelings foster genuine trust and compassion in relationships. One potential problem, however, is that understanding can be misinterpreted as agreement, and this can get tricky where there is shared interest.
For instance, my wife really wants to change some things in our apartment, get some more storage cabinets to put things away (because there are no closets in German apartments), and generally get the things we have more organized. When the topic comes up I try my best to listen to her point of view, to forget my take on the issue, and really understand what she’s saying. She says we should go to Ikea and buy a bunch of furniture, spend whole days organizing things, and that then everything will be fine. Finally we’ll have peace of mind about all the stuff in our apartment.
I’m sure she means it and I think that, on occasion, I do a good job of listening. But what I’ve discovered is that on those occasions where I do a good job, she interprets that understanding as implicit agreement about what we as a family want to do. And, unfortunately, that’s not the case. (For what it’s worth I think we should just get rid of a lot of stuff and then we won’t need new cabinets. And anyway, it’s just stuff. Ignore it. It’s not important. Will I, on my deathbed, say, “I wish I had spent more time organizing my stuff”? Doubtful.)
What I think this dilemma speaks to is the need to be clear in conversations about who currently has “ownership” and demarcate those shifts. So, if I think my wife has spoken her piece about the apartment, then maybe I should first try to clearly reflect back to her what I heard her say (an example of “active listening” which we haven’t yet covered) and if I got it right that will clearly demonstrate that I did really hear what she had to say. But then I could ask to shift the ownership of the conversation and say something like, “OK, I think I get your take on this. Could I tell you my opinion?” This way I can have my cake and eat it too – I can signal understanding, but then also mark out my position in an instance where there is shared stake.
I’m not saying this is all easy, but I think it does speak to the need for community builders to be very skilled and reflective communicators. Conversations obviously go through different phases and shifts – maybe by learning to see those and clearly marking them we can avoid some misunderstandings.
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