The following material is adapted from William M. Timpson’s (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood), a text that is being used for the infusion of sustainable peace studies into the curriculum at the University of Ngozi and other campuses in Burundi. These ideas are equally relevant for schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as in our churches, organizations and businesses. Everyone can benefit when conflicts are resolved through improved communication.

“Teacher Effectiveness Training” and the skills of “Highly Effective People”

We all know that good communication can be pivotal in defusing a volatile confrontation, helping everyone lower their emotions and defenses in order to get a deeper understanding of what happened, how people feel about it and what peaceful alternatives are possible.

Deep listening: There are many different forms of listening. There is the “light” listening you do in passing with friends or colleagues, or in response to “What’s up?” or “How about those Rams!” (Insert your team’s name or mascot.) You’ll usually engage in more “professional” listening in class when questions arise or a discussion unfolds. You might experience some “anxious” listening when you sit down for your annual performance review. Then there is the “ceremonial” listening amidst the pomp of a graduation exercise, or the “haphazard” listening when you’re watching TV. Then there is “deep” listening, the kind you do when a friend has a problem and needs your support and assistance, when a loved one has died, the kind of listening you need when a rejection letter arrives.

Some guidelines for this deeper form of listening can help you and others when you are trying to resolve a problem. It’s helpful to know that this option is available when needed. The benefits can last a lifetime. Steven Covey’s (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster) describes some of these skills within a context of business. Tom Gordon’s (1974) Teacher Effectiveness Training describes the benefits of deep listening in classrooms.

Seek first to understand: Too often, our own agendas and our need to be heard make it difficult to listen deeply to someone else, to give our undivided attention. Disciplining yourself to put your own needs on hold and attend to someone else can help that person—and you—get to a better understanding about a particular problem, to see more clearly from that person’s perspective.

In a small group section of a first year seminar dedicated to helping students make a successful transition from high school to college, we took quite a bit of time to discuss the experience of one of the students—let’s call her Andrea—and her experience proved to be a wonderful case study that had meaning for everyone in the class.

Andrea was really frustrated by the duplication she saw in her chemistry class, between what was in the text and what was covered in lecture. “I can read,” she told us. “I don’t need to be read to, word for word.” Moreover, her entire chemistry class seemed to be in revolt, with far too many students coming in late, leaving early, talking during lecture, reading the newspaper, etc. Chaos ruled and it was ugly. In Andrea’s mind, students were being really rude, very disrespectful! When she went to her instructor to complain, she first tried to understand why all this was happening.

What she learned was that the instructor, just out of her own graduate program, was anxious about doing well and eager to follow the advice of a senior faculty mentor who told her to stay “close to the text.” Once Andrea heard that, she understood. Instead of writing this instructor off as incompetent, uncaring or just plain dull, Andrea could see that she was trapped by poor advice and a desire to do well.

What Andrea needed in class were examples that would illustrate the text and that would provide concrete and accessible references for various chemical theories and concepts. After hearing Andrea’s concerns and recommendations, the instructor thanked her for coming in to talk (and listen), promised that she would rethink her future lectures and hoped that Andrea would come back with more feedback in the future.

Help clarify thoughts and feelings: Once you understand a situation better, you then want to focus on the other person’s thoughts and feelings. You become a kind of sounding board, reflecting back what you hear and what you sense, how the other might feel. Typically, the other person will either confirm that you got it right or correct you. Either way, each of you is sharpening your understanding of the issues and underlying causes.

By mirroring back in this manner, you are also conveying your desire to understand. Intentions matter! One of the greatest gifts you can give anyone is your support, assistance and undivided attention. You do care what that person thinks and feels. With this kind of interactive focus, you’re building trust, as you move toward a deeper understanding. The barriers drop away. Many of us regularly think out loud. Having someone listen carefully, in the way I am describing here, can help any of us clarify our own thoughts and feelings, move past our frustrations and toward some constructive resolution.

On the emotional side, be alert to nonverbal messages and your own intuition about how the other person is feeling, how volatile or charged a particular problem is for that person. Check out your hunches. Andrea might have offered to her instructor, “You seem really trapped between what you were told and what we are saying that we need.” Or “If I were in your situation, I would be really frustrated.” The chemistry instructor could have confirmed or corrected Andrea’s guesses and their mutual trust might have deepened.

Minimize questioning: The problem with questioning is that it comes from you, the listener, and can take the ownership of the process away from the other person. Your questions might help you clarify something, but they may also distract the other person from going deeper, from following his or her self-reflections and insights. The primary goal should always be to help the other person clarify his or her thoughts and feelings. This is a subtle but useful distinction. It’s not an iron-clad principle but a dynamic that we can be alert to as instructors.

For example, you can use reflective statements instead of questions: “You seem really upset about this.” This may seem like a small point, but when you put it in question form—“Are you upset about this?”—you’ve taken over the direction of the conversation. You’re demanding a response. In contrast, reflections keep the responsibility on the other person to control the process, to clarify and decide how to move on. You want to be a supportive sounding board, not an interrogator.

Keep your own opinions on hold: Finally, be cautious about “hitchhiking,” jumping into the conversation with your own experiences, opinions, etc. In casual conversations there is this natural dynamic of back and forth, give and take, often rapid and overlapping. But when you want to listen deeply or help someone embroiled in a conflict, disciplining yourself to keep the focus on the other may be the best approach.

In the model we are describing here, you begin with two assumptions: first, that the other person knows best the particulars of his or her situation; and second, that it’s best to let that other person decide when to ask for advice or to hear about your experiences. Offering too much too soon can undermine that person’s self-confidence and ability to see through a problem.

In the short run, your advice might be very helpful, but it is still your advice. In the long run, you may be a better friend, instructor or leader by holding back your own ideas until a time when the other person has wrestled with all the issues and now is asking for your help. In the daily scheme of things, few of us function like this, so it may take some real self-discipline and feedback to get there. And time! Give it a try when you get the chance.

Local applications where you live: Again, we pose the challenge: What and where can you imagine these ideas working effectively in your community? How can we work together to infuse these kinds of basic peacebuilding ideas and skills in your schools, on your campuses, and in your organizations?

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