Listening When You Don’t Agree

Many of us know the ‘active listening’ techniques of paraphrasing, asking curious questions, using our body language (e.g., eye contact, nodding, relaxed body posture, etc.) Though we might  know what to do, it is amazing how often we don’t actually follow through on these behaviors day to day. 

Here are several benefits when you demonstrate  genuine listening:

  • Others feel heard and valued
  • Others’ are able to hear what you have to say
  • Engagement in productive and effective dialogue
  • Fostering of inclusive environments

Active listening is not easy under the best of circumstances., It is especially challenging when you don’t agree with the other person. Maybe you don’t agree with what they are saying fundamentally. Maybe you don’t agree with what they are asking or requesting of you. In these moments we tend to stop listening. Instead, we  start planning our response. This gets in the way of the benefits we want to see in the workplace, in the classroom, and in our personal lives.

This can lead to the other person not feeling heard at all. And when the other person doesn’t feel heard, they are not able to hear you in return. This cycle perpetuates itself and those involved aren’t engaged in dialogue, or even debate. They are just talking at each other -getting more and more frustrated. 

I believe the biggest barriers to our ability to listen when we don’t agree are our own assumptions. We tend to assume that listening without immediately sharing our own thoughts or rejections of requests means we agree with them and are committing to doing what they want. I’m here to tell you – listening does not mean these things. 

To clarify… listening without sharing your own thoughts does not mean that you agree, that you will do what the other person wants, or that you are committing to anything. I believe once we accept this to be true, our ability to actively listen increases. 

The key is to allow more space and more listening when you disagree. You can do this by engaging in the active listening skills listed above.. Providing space for silence can also be helpful. Being silent while still using your non-verbals to communicate you are listening, can give the other person the feeling they are being heard. 

So when can you share your own thoughts? You can share your thoughts when the other person  signals they feel heard. For example:

  • They say, “Yes!” after hearing you paraphrase what you heard them say.
  • They stop speaking.
  • They ask you about your thoughts.
  • Their body language relaxes.

When you notice these things, you might ask them, “Is there anything else you think I should hear/know?” When it seems time to share your thoughts, do so by asking them if they want to hear from you. “I have some thoughts. Would you like to hear them?” This also helps prepare the other person to start listening to you because they have agreed to it. 

*A quick note. When the other person’s words or behaviors are harmful to yourself or others, you may need to take a different approach. Reach out to the resources on your campus for help handling certain egregious situations. If you are in the moment and not sure what to do, active listening can help de-escalate the situation while you consider ways to end the behavior or remove the person from the situation. 

Listening is challenging in the best of circumstances, let alone when you disagree with the other person. When we want to create dialogue and inclusive environments, this is when we need to be more intentional with our listening. Click here for a handout with more tips on active listening when you don’t agree. 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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