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Why Listen?

There is often a long history of distrust and disconnection in intractable conflicts. In attempts to get to an agreement, it can understandably be difficult to get the sides to truly listen to one another. We all have a deep need to be understood, and satisfying that need can open up unexpected opportunities.

Listening offers a window into the other side’s thinking, so it’s no coincidence that effective negotiators listen far more than they talk. Listening conveys respect, builds relationships, and creates an atmosphere in which you can better deal with the issues. By listening to a young commander in Syria, William dissolved his own preconceptions and built empathy. When embroiled in intense conflict, it can be easy to forget that we aren’t dealing with an abstract “other side,” but human beings with their own stories.

Practice Listen

  1. Listen from their frame of reference to feel what it’s like to be in their shoes and what they really want. Listen to understand, not to refute or debate.

  2. Listen to convey respect. Respect is the cheapest concession one can make in a negotiation. The other side’s dignity may not mean much to you but it means everything to them.

  3. Reflect back what you hear. Pay attention not only to the words said but what’s communicated nonverbally. Try to articulate their problem better than they can.

  4. Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with yes or no. Your question should make them think. Begin your question with “how”, “why”, “why not”, “what”, or “who.”

Audio Series


This week’s episode reveals how radically we can shift our frame when we listen — not ordinary listening, but truly putting ourselves in another’s shoes. Here, William tells the story of interviewing a rebel leader fresh off the battlefield during raging civil war in Syria. When asked to tell the story of his life and dreams, the commander gave an unexpected answer.



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