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How to really listen to someone you don’t agree with

Photo of two women sitting at a table having a casual but connected conversation

Listening is essential if you want to have a meaningful and productive exchange with another person, especially if you don’t agree with them.

In a recent article as part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, Tania Israel, PhD, a professor in the department of counseling, clinical and school psychology at the University of California, lays out three active listening skills that can help you have better, more productive conversations.

“In my training as a psychologist, I spend a lot of time learning how to actively listen,” Israel writes in her book Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work. “I can tell you from years of experience that having a productive dialogue is not possible without active listening.”


Active Listening Skill #1: Nonverbal attending

Nonverbal attending is giving someone your full attention without speaking.

Here are some of the basics:

Body language – try to be relaxed but attentive. If you’re sitting, lean forward slightly rather than slouching back.

Use simple gestures to indicate that you’re listening or encourage them to continue. Head nods work but don’t do it continuously. Occasionally saying “Mm-hmm” helps to communicate encouragement.

Stay silent. It’s hard to listen if you’re talking.

“Offering somebody uninterrupted time to talk, even a few minutes, is a generous gift that we seldom give each other,” Israel writes. “It doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut for hours and hours, but I encourage you to see how long you can simply listen to somebody without wanting to interrupt.”

If you’re using active listening, you should understand what the other person is trying to communicate and help the speaker feel understood.


Active Listening Skill #2: Reflecting

Reflecting means repeating or rephrasing key content or meaning from the other person.

“A reflection communicates that you heard what the other person said,” Israel writes. “Rather than saying, ‘I hear you,’ you show you’ve heard them by sharing back what they said. It also confirms that you have an accurate understanding of their thoughts.”

It also gives the other person a chance to correct you if you’ve missed the mark, which can be helpful if you didn’t quite understand what they said.

You don’t have to repeat what the other person said word-for-word. Israel recommends using fewer words to summarize what they said.

The role of reflection is to help people feel heard and to make sure you understand them.

“It’s more important for you to simply be present than to be brilliant,” Israel said.


Active Listening Skill #3: Ask open-ended questions

Inevitably, as you listen, questions will pop into your head. Resist the urge to stop the person talking to get an answer, which interrupts their thinking, shifts the focus to your agenda, interfering with connection and derailing the conversation, Israel says.

Here are a few tips for how to use questions effectively:

  • Make sure you’re using active listening skills – attend and reflect before you ask a question. Understanding the other person and making them feel understood provides a good foundation, and they may be more inclined to open up to your question.
  • When you want to ask a question to promote dialogue, it is best to use open-ended questions that can’t be answered simply with a “yes” or “no” answer. Israel recommends keeping your questions simple.
  • “Resist the urge to try to guide or impress the other person with your exceptionally astute question,” she says.
  • Try to stay neutral on both tone and content. Judgment and opinion can come across in your tone and how you phrase your question. For example, saying “Is that where you’re going on vacation?” is more contentious than “Tell me how you decided to go there for vacation” (which is a statement that is a question).

“The final thing to keep in mind about attending, reflecting and open-ended questions is that these tools are intended to help promote understanding by developing greater connection,” Israel writes. “Connection is the most important thing.”

You can have connection without using any of the active listening skills, and if they’re not working, Israel says, don’t force them.

“That said, don’t underestimate them either,” she said. “They’re backed by research and experience, and they can help you to navigate the unpredictable, challenging waters of dialogue with others.”


Published on Jan. 26, 2021.