In negotiations, it is important to clearly understand what the other person is saying, to be able to demonstrate that understanding, and to have that understanding verified (or, if necessary, corrected). This is known as reflective listening.
In his groundbreaking book People Skills, Dr. Robert Bolton provides a good definition of reflective listening:
The good listener responds reflectively to what the speaker is saying. She restates, in her own words, the feeling and/or content that is being expressed—and in doing so, communicates understanding and acceptance. There are four basic reflecting skills. Paraphrasing, the first of the reflective responses, focuses on the speaker’s content. The reflection of feeling occurs when the listener concentrates on feeling words, infers feelings from the general content, “reads” body language, asks, “How would I feel if I were doing or saying that?” and then mirrors the feeling back to the speaker. The combined reflection of feeling and content is called the reflection of meaning. Summative reflections are very condensed recaps of the most significant elements of a fairly long segment of conversation.[i]
Reflective listening is not a simple technique you quickly implement. It’s a serious practice that requires your complete and careful attention.
Paraphrasing content is an especially useful part of reflective listening. It doesn’t mean that you accept or agree with the other person’s position, but rather that you have heard it accurately. And the more your negotiation partner feels heard and understood, even if you respectfully disagree with his or her position, the more open that person may be to reaching an agreement with you. What’s more, paraphrasing what you’ve heard also helps you move closer to a correct understanding.
In workplace mediations, I often ask one party to paraphrase what the other person has said, but only after the speaker has had his or her full say. For example, “Ted, did you hear what Sally just said? She was explaining why she’s upset with your behavior. Can you repeat it back in your own words to let her know that you’ve understood?”
Bolton’s second response, feeling, increases your level of empathy for the other person.
Developing awareness for the other person’s feelings, putting yourself in his or her shoes, is especially important in dealing with conflict, which often arises during problematic negotiations. When you acknowledge that another person is angry (or hurt, or disappointed, or anything else), you go a long way toward creating a positive connection. Naming the feeling also helps to dispel and deflect its blocking energy.
When you are a listener, your job is to reflect both content and feeling back to your negotiation partner.
Negotiating with Teenagers
Let’s look at how Bolton’s reflective listening skills might help in a negotiation with your teenage son. You have asked him multiple times to clean up his room. Each time he refuses, and the room gets messier by the day. You’re tired of the screaming matches that inevitably follow each request. So, this time, you practice reflective listening:
“Hal, will you please clean your room today?”
“No, I will not please clean my room—just like I’ve told you a hundred times already.”
In a curious rather than angry tone—here’s where controlling emotion comes into play—you ask, “Why are you giving me such a hard time about cleaning up your room?”
“It’s my room and you should let me have it the way I want. It’s none of your business!” His arms are crossed and voice is raised. You note the posture but don’t judge or respond defensively.
“Okay, so I hear that you view my request as an invasion of your space and privacy. And you’re angry about that. Is that right?”
Hal nods. “Duh, yeah, of course that’s right.”
“I respect your privacy, Hal. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to come into your room or poke around in it. Do you think there might be another reason for my wanting you to clean your room?”
You have heard him and paraphrased his concern about privacy, and you have acknowledged his feelings—anger—in a nonconfrontational way. Hal’s arms uncross and he leans forward. “What reason?”
“I need you to show me that you can take care of the things I’ve trusted you with. If you can’t take care of your room, how will you be able to take care of a car when you’re old enough to drive next year?”
Now you have confirmed Hal’s position that his room is his domain but added a gentle reminder that the room is entrusted to him. You didn’t say, “That’s not your room; you’re in my house and you’ll do as I say!” Instead, you’ve shifted the focus away from an area that Hal doesn’t care about (keeping his room clean) to one that he might care about a great deal (being permitted to drive a car). You’ve also reframed the entire discussion: it’s now about your trust, not about violating his privacy. And you’ve created an opening for negotiation. (I’ll show you how to reframe in chapter 12.)
You might then use leverage with Hal by offering him something he wants (a bigger allowance, computer time, music downloads, a later curfew) in return for cleaning his room. Or, perhaps, you offer to put $10 in an account toward buying his first used car every time he cleans his room.
Another option is to ask Hal to reverse roles and have the two of you paraphrase each other. Let him hear his reasons, and his attitude, coming out of your mouth. Then he can take your position, and your own attitude, and reflect them back to you. Here’s how that exercise might sound.
You, acting as Hal: “Why can’t you just leave me alone? You’re always after me about something. If I want my room to be a pigsty, and smell like moldy gym shoes, it’s none of your business.”
Hal, acting as you: “It is my business, and what you want doesn’t matter because you’re just a teenager. I’m the boss around here and you’ll do as I say. I’m the master and you’re the servant.”
This exchange might lead to a broader dialogue about Hal’s feelings of being excessively monitored or of having no say in many decisions that concern him. That discussion might also focus on your job as a parent to set boundaries and your desire to not be questioned or resisted about every decision.
When you practice active and reflective listening, your partner in the negotiation is more likely to feel deeply heard. This encourages the negotiation to proceed in a positive way.
[i]. Robert Bolton, People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 61.
Michèle Huff, J.D. is an intellectual property and technology licensing practitioner. She is a speaker on the topic of negotiation and is author of The Transformative Negotiator (Unhooked Books, April 2015). After 20+ years working with Fortune 500 companies in the Silicon Valley, she is currently at the University of New Mexico supporting their research mission by facilitating industry relationships with research-active faculty, and managing and motivating teams in the legal department and the office of sponsored projects. She was recently honored as one of 30 recipients of the 2014 Women of Influence award by the Albuquerque Business First.