How the genius technique of deep listening can help us have constructive arguments

There is a difference between ‘listening to understand’ and ‘listening to respond’ and we often end up doing the latter. Deep listening is a technique that encourages us to empathise with another person’s point of view. Here’s an expert guide on how to use the technique to have more constructive arguments and be more open-minded. 

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Disagreement is a natural part of life, but it’s not unusual to be in a situation where we find it hard to even speak to someone we adamantly believe is wrong. 

From Twitter spats to polarised political views, it can often feel like we’re living in divided times. But, whether it’s a debate about Brexit or a domestic squabble about whose turn it is to take the bins out, debates can get heated and become deadlocked when we come from two opposing sides. 

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Much of the time stalemates come about because we’re not actually listening to another person’s opinion. In fact, the simple act of listening to someone properly can be the difference between a fruitful discussion and an impasse. This is where a technique called deep listening comes in.

Deep listening is a form of empathetic listening, where we establish trust with the person we’re talking to by trying to understand their point of view. 

Louisa Weinstein conflict resolution expert
Louisa Weinstein is a conflict mediation specialist and the founder of The Conflict Resolution Centre.

“When we practise empathetic listening with the intention to really understand the other person and we are prepared to hear a different perspective, there is always an opportunity for a solution,” says Louisa Weinstein, a conflict mediation specialist and the founder of The Conflict Resolution Centre.

What’s more, deep listening is something we can get better at over time. “Deep listening is a skill that can be honed and developed,” says Caroline Plumer, a BACP-accredited therapist and founder of CPPC London. “If you practise it, you will get better at it and it will start to become more natural in all kinds of situations.”

Here, Louisa and Caroline explain how to use deep listening to diffuse conflict and get the most out of your interactions with people.  

Caroline Plumer deep listening
Caroline Plumer is a BACP Accredited therapist.

What is deep listening? 

Deep listening is distinct from normal listening because it requires people to enter a conversation with the intention of connecting with someone and establishing trust.

The technique has a lot of crossover with active listening. An idea developed by American psychologist Carl Rogers, active listening involves paraphrasing or repeating back what someone has said as well as responding to their body language. These behaviours mean we can listen to someone more carefully and fully.

Deep listening takes active listening a step further by involving empathy. “Deep listening is a mindful approach to listening,” says Caroline. “It focuses on empathy and making sure from the outset you’re listening to someone in an unjudgmental way. You’re putting yourself in their position and you’re listening to learn.”  

“Generally, when we scrap with someone we adopt a childlike state,” says Louisa. “Even political debates can be very childlike and end up being patronising and condescending. When we employ deep listening we start behaving differently and move into an adult state, which is objective and able to see the full picture.” 

Research published in the National Journal Of Medicine also finds that when we are listened to deeply it makes us feel more valued and accepted, even if we don’t agree with the person we’re talking to.

How to practise deep listening and have productive discussions  

Enter discussions with an intention

Deep listening is most effective when a conversation has a clear objective, and this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘winning’ a discussion in the traditional sense.

“When you enter a discussion, go in with an intention to understand the other person and be prepared to hear a different perspective,” says Louisa, who also features as a conflict resolution expert on BBC 4’s Across the Red Line, which invites two figures on opposing sides of an issue to discuss the matter using deep listening techniques.

 “A good starting point for deep listening is asking yourself what you want from a discussion and what is a good outcome. It could be to preserve a relationship or to have dignity in a relationship because that’s the first thing we start to lose when things unravel,” Louisa adds. 

For many discussions or debates, the intention is to ‘win’. However, when we employ deep listening, winning doesn’t always mean trouncing the other person. “Coming out on top isn’t necessarily winning the argument,” explains Louisa. “You need to go beyond that. Winning might mean being the bigger person or finding a better alternative. That’s when deep listening is most powerful  – when it creates change.” 

Ask open questions

Asking open questions helps us understand another person’s point of view more fully. “The questions you ask are as important, maybe more important, than the listening,” says Louisa. 

The questions you ask will also give your conversation structure, which is important for deep listening.

Lousia recommends asking the other person these questions: 

  • “What do you want?”
  • “What does that look like specifically?”
  • “Tell me more about what you want?”
  • “What are the milestones to achieving that?”
  • “What would need to happen for you to get what you want?”
  •  “What will happen when you get what you want?”

“The first time someone says something is not usually their full answer,” explains Louisa. “So repeating the question can give you a better understanding of what someone is saying.” 

“These questions are useful because we often don’t think through getting the outcome that we want. If we really think about it, we might not want it in the first place.” 

Repeat back what people have said

Paraphrasing or repeating back what a person has said is a key component of active listening, but it can also be used to enhance deep listening. Repetition reinforces the speaker’s message and shows we’re trying to understand them.

“If you clarify by repeating back what someone is saying, you will make them feel at ease and make them feel heard,” says Caroline. “It reduces the likelihood of crossed wires. It also means the person will become more receptive because they feel really heard by you.”

“Repetition can feel silly, but it ends up being really powerful. Particularly when you’ve known someone a long time, you can assume you know what they’re thinking or feeling. Paraphrasing gives a feeling that the other person is trying to really listen to you and understand your experiences.” 

Avoid interrupting and giving advice

Previous studies have emphasised the difference between ‘listening to understand’ and ‘listening to respond’. While many of us believe we listen effectively, in actual fact it’s human nature to spend conversations planning what we are going to say next or thinking of solutions to people’s problems instead of understanding them.

“A lot of the time, even if we’re not interrupting someone, often we will be thinking about what we want to say next. We’re almost just waiting our turn and looking for the next opportunity to speak,” says Caroline. Deep listening aims to put this to one side so we can be as open and receptive to someone as possible. 

Caroline adds that giving out advice to someone you’re speaking to is counterproductive to deep listening. “Think about yourself in their position, rather than just doling out advice. A lot of the time when people give advice it comes from a really good place, but they haven’t taken the time to understand all of the circumstances and the feelings that might be happening to the other person.” 

Develop trust and build a comfortable space

In the same way laughter is infectious, as soon as one person employs deep listening it can rub off on the people you are talking to. A huge part of deep listening is creating a trusting and comfortable space so people are able to speak freely. As soon as this is achieved people feel calmer and less explosive, prompting more constructive discussions.

“The bottom line is feeling comfortable enough to open up,” says Louisa. “You’re not going to go into something deeply or be open to new perspectives unless you feel comfortable to do that.”

“If you show the other person empathy and really engage with them, you’ll find you get a much better response from people,” adds Caroline. “If you go in with a good attitude, most people will be really receptive and try to meet you in the middle.”  

Be brave and prepare to hear different opinions

Practising deep listening can be uncomfortable. It means we may be confronted with things we disagree with or we may be challenged on our beliefs. 

“You have to be very brave when you use deep listening,” says Louisa. “Deep listening requires us to really reflect on our beliefs and opinions and, without sounding trite, means we really have to face our fears.

“It also requires us to take personal responsibility, which is very hard. Not only do we have to be prepared not to be right, but conflicts shine a light on our vulnerabilities and least pleasant traits. Unless we’re prepared to take responsibility for them, it’s harder to work through the process.” 

Find more expert-led guides and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy Instagram page (TheCuriosityAcademy). 

To find out more about deep listening and other conflict meditation techniques, join Louisa’s The Influential Leader Programme from 13 to 15 September. Anyone who signs up via Stylist can claim a free conflict coaching session from Louisa. 

Images: Getty, Louisa Weinstein, Caroline Plumer