I Hear You

Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus . . . in Three Simple Steps

 I Hear You

Author: Donny Ebenstein
Pub Date: December 2013
Print Edition: $24.95
Print ISBN: 9780814432198
Page Count: 288
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814432204

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From Conflict to Consensus

In the three years I spent acquiring my degree from Harvard Law School, I learned that I actually didn't want to be a lawyer. Instead of being a gladiator on behalf of my clients, I wanted to help people listen to the other side, communicate more effectively, and resolve their conflicts amicably. If I were successful, they would learn and grow from their difficult situations, avoiding conflict in the future.

Shortly after my graduation, I got the chance of a lifetime, winning a fellowship to intern at a conflict resolution center sponsored by the Supreme Court of Costa Rica. I had been in Costa Rica for less than a week, living in the capital of San José. It was Sunday night when I got a phone call from Gabriela, the training director. A presenter who was scheduled to accompany her on a trip to the south suddenly had to cancel for personal reasons. The team, she explained, was now one presenter short--could I go in his place?

A combination of excitement and terror filled me. I was going to have a chance to teach people about the power of conflict resolution. But was I really ready to do that, in a foreign country and speaking a foreign language? What if I flopped?

"Of course I'll go," I said.

The presentation was taking place in Sierpe, a small tropical town in swamplands near the Pacific coast. The weather was hot, humid, and extremely uncomfortable, and I cursed my American button-down shirt, necktie, and wool dress pants. My stomach was in agony from drinking the water that my American stomach couldn't handle. Sweating and miserable, I made my way over to where the presentation would take place--a concrete floor with three grass walls and a grass roof. Our hosts had set up an overhead projector and some sixty chairs for the audience--but no microphone. The acoustics were terrible; to be heard I almost had to yell.

Despite these obstacles, the presentation was a huge success, flawed Spanish and all. My confidence soared, and I went on to do several more such presentations, as well as actual mediations, in other cities and in San José. Success built on itself, and I returned from Costa Rica determined to build a career in this field. Since then, over the past seventeen years, I have been fortunate to be able to turn my passion into a profession. As I think about how my career began with that presentation, two lessons come to mind.

First, I learned that when I shared a message and taught people skills that I truly believed in, I could be effective in virtually any setting. I have worked successfully as a trainer, mediator, facilitator, consultant, curriculum designer, and coach. I've done so with many different types of populations--senior business executives, teachers, psychologists, army officers, hedge fund managers, social workers, police officers, salespeople, attorneys, school administrators, bankers, judges, and more. I have worked all around the world, including in Latin America, the Middle East, Australia, China, Japan, and throughout Europe.

Second, I realized that the need to answer some basic questions is nearly universal: How can I communicate more effectively? How can I build and improve relationships? How can I resolve conflicts? No matter where people worked or what they did for a living, these were the questions that kept surfacing. The desire for help in these areas is both intense and widespread, and when presented with tools that will help, people respond. I've written this book to help people communicate more effectively, particularly in their most stuck, conflict-ridden situations.


My first encounter with conflict resolution came while still a law student, mediating in the local small claims court. Small claims cases are disputes where the dollar amounts are typically low (a few hundred dollars) but the emotions are high. They might involve an unhappy customer, an unpaid contractor, feuding neighbors, or even quarrels between family members. The goal of small claims mediation is to help the parties resolve their dispute amicably, without having to go before a judge. There are many benefits to settling a dispute rather than receiving a judgment, including better enforcement of the agreement, saving time, protecting one's reputation, and improving relationships (which can be especially important between neighbors or family members).

I volunteered to become trained as a mediator. In the thirty-two-hour mediation course, we learned many different skills, including how to build rapport with the parties, how to ask questions, how to listen effectively, and how to show empathy.

As I began mediating actual cases, I was amazed to see how this process unlocked what appeared to be intractable conflicts, assisting the parties in reaching a mutually acceptable resolution. I asked myself, "Why is mediation effective? If it was possible to settle the case all along, why didn't it settle before? And if it was not possible previously, what has the mediator done to change that?"

Over time, I came to realize that the mediator played an essential role in fostering mutual understanding. A mediator can listen to each side's perspective, understand and validate that perspective, and simultaneously help each party listen to and understand the other side's perspective. The mediator bridges the gaps in understanding between parties. It is this fostering of mutual understanding, in turn, that unlocks the situation and opens up new possibilities for the parties to communicate with one another and to ultimately think creatively about possible solutions that had not been considered before.

But it's not always practical to call in a mediator. Whether your stuck situation is with a colleague, a subordinate, your manager, an important client, or anyone else, you may not have the luxury of calling in a skilled and neutral outsider to bridge the gaps in understanding. And in those cases, you need to help yourself by becoming your own coach, your own outside neutral party. Unilaterally, you can bridge the gaps in perspective, the way a mediator would, and harness the power of mediation to get unstuck all by yourself. This doesn't mean giving in, and it doesn't mean giving up. It just means stepping outside your perspective and looking at your situation from a neutral vantage point. This book provides you with strategies and techniques to do just that.

Chapter One describes the problem of being stuck. We all encounter situations where we don't know how to make things better, making us feel trapped and helpless. The first step is to recognize that you have the power to change things by behaving differently yourself. Even when things seem hopeless, the dynamics of an interpersonal interaction can be changed by just one of the parties doing something differently.

In order to interact differently with your counterparty, you need to find a way to think differently. Looking for new words to say isn't the answer; you need to learn to shift your perspective and flex your mind to create new possibilities in how you interact with the other side. This is the subject of Chapter Two. Flexing one's mind, however, is no small feat. Chapter Three describes the barriers to engaging in this process that can get you stuck, and it provides you with some suggestions for how to get past these challenges.

We've all heard similar advice before: Put yourself in the other person's shoes. But to really get it, to truly get unstuck, you need to do more than put yourself in the other person's place. Rather, you need to build your capacity to see different perspectives at the same time. A concrete way of visualizing what I am advocating occurred to me one evening while I was sitting in my apartment. I live on the fourth floor of a six-floor apartment building. As anyone who has lived in an apartment knows, noise travels from units above to units below. In our line of apartments, all of the residents are families with small children, and we all make plenty of noise.

On this particular evening, my upstairs neighbors were being quite loud. Their kids were running around, throwing toys, banging, and generally making a huge ruckus. I was becoming quite frustrated and was tempted to go upstairs to complain and say, "You need to keep your kids quieter and be sensitive to your downstairs neighbors."

But I paused. Just then, I heard a loud crash from my kids' room, where a soccer game was in progress. I considered how we sounded to my downstairs neighbors. I'm sure the ruckus that my children were making was just as disturbing to the family that lives under us. If they were to come upstairs and complain, I would probably want to say something like, "Look, kids are noisy, and there is not much that can be done. This is the reality of apartment living."

This experience was an eye-opener for me. I had a moment of clarity, where I realized that there were two legitimate perspectives to this situation--the upstairs perspective and the downstairs perspective. And this is true in any stuck situation: There are multiple justifiable perspectives, different yet valid ways to look at what is going on.

The ability to see both perspectives at the same time helped me to successfully manage my frustration. In this case, it was simple, since I was simultaneously living the experience of both an upstairs and downstairs neighbor, both the victim and the perpetrator of noisemaking. It was therefore much easier to flex my mind and view the noise coming from upstairs through the eyes of the upstairs neighbor, instead of just being annoyed by the thumping from above. It's not that it wasn't noisy; rather, I could understand that they were doing their best, just as I was doing mine.

Three chapters (four, five, and six) together offer a framework for how to shift perspective without losing your own story; that is, how to apply the upstairs--downstairs paradigm to your own stuck situations. There are three different ways of shifting perspective that I recommend, all of which can be used to gain a bird's-eye view of your case. They include telling the other side's story (Chapter Four), learning to see yourself as others see you (Chapter Five), and recognizing how your dynamic is affected by the system or structures in place, rather than just by the personalities involved (Chapter Six.) Using examples and mock dialogues, each of these chapters models how you can achieve the respective shift in thinking. They also provide you with concrete pointers on how you can have a conversation with the other side in the wake of that shift.

Most of the time people become stuck in their own perspective. It's deceptively easy to believe that you've understood another point of view when you've actually failed to understand the other issues at hand. These three chapters will help you make sure that you have successfully flexed your mind--that you really do get it. However, sometimes people can have the reverse problem. They become lost in the other side's perspective. Rather than seeing both the upstairs and downstairs positions at the same time, they adopt the other side's narrative in lieu of their own story. Whether this is a common problem for you or merely an occasional challenge, Chapter Seven tackles the question of how to flex your mind without losing your own narrative. By this point in the book, you'll have mastered the skill of telling the upstairs and downstairs stories at the same time--and you'll be able to prepare accordingly.

Once you've acquired these skills, you'll need to apply what you have learned to real life. When you are trying to pinpoint what is getting you stuck, and how these various shifts can help you get unstuck in your particular case, it can be useful to engage in role-playing. In Chapter Eight, I define role-playing and highlight the ways it can help you get unstuck. Role-playing can be useful as a diagnostic tool, and it is also essential for preparing you for future--and smoother--interactions with your counterparty.

Flexing your mind in different ways and role-playing your situation will enable you to generate multiple new options that can open the doors to your stuck situation. Chapter Nine delves into the various possibilities that may emerge. You may flex your mind and come up with creative options for making things better. Alternatively, after seeing things differently, you may decide that the status quo works for you and simply tweak it for your own comfort. In some extreme situations, you may decide that leaving the situation is what's best for you. After having flexed your mind, any of these options leads to empowerment, as you will have undergone a process through which you have made a conscious, thorough, and informed decision about what works best for you.

Getting stuck is a fact of life. Difficult situations and difficult people are all around us, and no one, not even the most skilled communicator, can avoid getting stuck 100 percent of the time. While you can't control other people, you can control your own behavior. The good news is that the methods outlined in this book will help you alter your situation unilaterally. My hope is that this book will help you to bring out the best version of yourself so that you can cope more skillfully with the difficult situations you will inevitably encounter.

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