April 01, 2016

Learning to Hear: Alternative Dispute Resolution and the Power of Deep Listening

Kevin Agnew
When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.

—S. Covey

Looking across my desk at the good looking, 30-something corporate attorney making $250,000 a year, I bluntly say “You seem really scared.” His winding answers about his job search, the persistent and unnecessary use of the word “strategic” when discussing his plan, even his exaggerated smile, belie an undercurrent of edginess about his future and his career prospects. Despite his words, he just seems a little off.

My statement—so simple, but rare, even for someone working as a career coach—halts the conversation immediately. A big exhale, a loosening of the shoulders coincides with a slight opening of the mouth, and then, “I have two kids and a house and I don’t know what the hell I am going to be doing in three months. I don’t think I have ever thought of it that way, but, man, I am really just terrified.”

For those who work in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), there is a power in deep listening. When things are really grooving for me in my work as a career coach and as an adjunct professor teaching negotiations, my listening is not passive. Rather, it is an engaged listening—a listening of loud intensity—that is working to cut through the artifice of “business-speak” and hear the emotional truths that are at the center of a client’s job search or a student’s academic performance.

I was taught the primacy of listening skills when I was introduced to ADR in law school. On a lark, I tried out and made the Northwestern Law School Negotiations team. Our team practices were the perfect counter-narrative to the rest of my law school experience.

Law school classes so often fall victim to a classic intellectual vice—the subtle but thick pressure to make the most profound verbal point. This skill, so well-developed in law students after years of high academic achievement, is both stressful and comfortable. Stressful because of the never-ending fear of failure that pervades so many of our brightest law students; that vague but lingering sense that you are only one stupid comment away from being unmasked as a fraud, undeserving of your seat at the big-kids table. Comfortable because the game is so well-rehearsed and the intellectual muscles are so well-developed that success is an expected outcome.

It was soon obvious that my work in negotiations was different. My coaches routinely stressed “really listening so that you hear the other side’s interests.” Rather than being praised for a witty insight, my coaches implored me to stop talking so much and “listen with my eyes.” I learned that effective negotiation is not simply about exerting your will on the other side; rather, it was about deeply understanding the counterparty’s needs and interests and working towards identifying a common way forward.

These lessons cast a long shadow and have impacted my career. But more than being lessons for how to succeed, they have been pillars in how to be fulfilled. As a professor, the desire to listen—even if not always successfully employed—helps me connect with my students. Of course, connecting with your students is fundamental for effective teaching. But, more than that, it adds a level of joy to my teaching that would be absent if I was focused only on medicating my own intellectual anxiety by making the most impressive lecture.

In my work as a career coach, clients certainly expect help defining a plan of action for how to proceed in a turbulent job market. But offering them a place to explore their fears and connecting with them around the uncertainties of professional life creates a dynamic that is both professionally productive and personally rewarding. Clients often remark that simply being listened to, without pressure to have a fully developed plan, unburdened them in a way that several strategic networking lunches never would.

But life is not all about work. Alternating between job emails, Facebook posts, and the ever-present demands of parenthood, my reverence for listening, so front-of-mind in my work, is too often neglected at home. The human tendency to “turn in on” at work; reserving your best qualities between 9am and 5pm, only to closet that energy for your family while at home.

It is at these times that deep listening becomes vital. To really hear during the small personal moments — when a spouse asks to “go for a walk,” when your aging mother asks you to throw her a birthday party, when someone asks the simple but profound question: “Can you please listen to me?”

Deep listening is not a strategy that guarantees success. It is neither an elixir that cures every relationship nor the lone skill needed to be a successful and fulfilled professional. That said, deep listening is a foundational tool that helps you connect with the people in your life and allows you to more intimately understand the interests and values of your clients and colleagues. When you commit to really hearing someone you are doing something that is both important and rare: You are providing an arena for deeper understanding and you are more fully engaging your responsibilities.

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Kevin Agnew

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Kevin Agnew is a professional career coach at the global law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP and an adjunct professor in the Center on Negotiation and Mediation at Northwestern Law School. He began his career as an attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP, working on complex commercial litigation cases.