Thursday, December 10, 2015

When Listening, Avoid Making Suggestions

Guest post from Dana Caspersen:

I offer a challenge:

The next time you are listening to someone during a difficult conversation or conflict and you are tempted to make a suggestion—don’t. Instead of making a suggestion, bring your attention back to what they are saying and why. Listen for what’s important, even if you think you already know.

If you feel compelled to respond while you are listening, try asking questions that help the other person unfold their story. Avoid saying things like: “Well, you need to…”, or “What if you just…”, or “It sounds like the problem is…”. Instead, try asking questions that look for more information, like: “What’s the most important thing to you in this?”, or “How has this affected you?”.

Whether with a colleague, a partner or a stranger, it’s obvious that listening is useful in communication. But often in the stress of a difficult conversation or conflict we don’t really listen. Even when we think we are listening, we are often caught up in getting ready to, or making, a suggestion.

Listening and making suggestions are two different actions. Each of these actions leads us in a different direction and tends to provoke different outcomes in conflict.

I have found that the principle: “When listening, avoid making suggestions”, often initially strikes people as odd. They say, “If I have a good idea, why shouldn’t I say it?”, or, “Just because I have a suggestion, it doesn’t mean I’m not listening.”

here are times when it is important for us to offer our ideas, but there are many more times when the act of making a suggestion too early in the conversation can blind us to other options and get in the way of really hearing the information that the other person is trying to give us.

It can be very tempting to make suggestions when time is short or we feel uncomfortable in the pressure of a conversation. The urge to say what you think the problem is or which action the other person should choose can be strong. However, what I have seen over and over, is that once people decide to stop making suggestions for a while—to stop telling other people what to do—they are often shocked by how little they had really been listening. They are often equally surprised and delighted by how radically relationships can improve and how beneficial the outcomes in conflicts can be when they listen first and look for solutions later.

Here’s two reasons why differentiating between the action of listening and the action of making suggestions matters:

1. Your story is not their story.
Making suggestions is about your point of view. Listening is about the other person’s point of view. One of the most basic things that people need in a conflict is to be heard. When we move from the action of listening to the action of making a suggestion, we’re changing the focus of the conversation from their point of view to our own point of view. If this change in focus happens too early in the dialogue, people often feel their story hasn’t been heard. It then becomes more difficult for them to listen to the rest of the stories in the conflict.

2. Solutions that don’t meet the needs of both sides usually fail.
Whether we like it or not, in a conflict we need the other person’s story to be able to understand what is important and what kind of solution might be possible and effective.

Listening is about allowing the landscape that you are both traversing to become more visible, which makes it more possible to find a pathway through it. Listening is a form of map-building.

Offering a suggestion, on the other hand, is an attempt to find a solution. It is a proposed pathway. But, if we don’t have a good map of the landscape, we can’t know which path will get us where we want to go.

Often it’s tempting to try to find solutions as soon as possible, because conflict can be uncomfortable. But, if we do jump into a solution too early, before we really know what’s happening and what’s important to people, then we are much less likely to find a solution that meets the needs of the situation– one that works and will last.

So, the challenge: in the next difficult conversation you encounter, stop making suggestions for a while and see what happens. Develop an investigatory mindset and find out what really matters in the situation. Build detailed maps with people, even when you disagree, to see where you are and where you both want to go. Once you have this common ground, ideas and suggestions from both sides can be more easily heard and become useful in helping to find an effective pathway through the conflict.

Dana Caspersen is the author of Changing the Conversation: The 17Principles of Conflict Resolution (Penguin, 2015), and works internationally as a conflict specialist, public dialogue designer, speaker and award-winning performing artist. Dana holds a master’s degree in Conflict Studies and Mediation and her focus is on helping individuals and communities develop their ability to see conflict as a place of possibility and the skills to make those possibilities become reality. Learn more about her work, talks, videos and events at


Unknown said...

As a learning and development specialist who works primarily training management teams I spend a lot of time talking about listening. Love this concept and will include it as part of my listening focus.

Look forward to reading your book.

Paul Bailey

Unknown said...

Hello Paul, thanks for your comment and great to hear that the ideas resonate for you. I do find, as you mention, that supporting people in developing a robust capacity for listening is one of the most powerful tools for creating real change in institutions. Thanks for the work that you do.

Best, Dana Caspersen

Unknown said...

Great blog! As an agile coach, I frequently deal with team conflict and often find that at the center of team conflict is the lack of true listening skills. Thanks for this work, it helps give clarity to this discussion. LOL - now I have to read your book.

Unknown said...

Hello Carl,

I’m pleased hear that the ideas are useful for you in the important work that you’re doing helping teams to find clarity in conflict. I find that when teams discover that listening is not just the polite thing to do, but, as you mention, the basis of a productive approach to conflict, then even the messiest situations can become fruitful. Thanks for your comment.