Advanced Listening Skills for Difficult Situations

Advanced Listening Skills for Difficult Situations
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If you go to any seminar in communication skills, they will likely cover the basics of active listening such as reflections, summaries, questions, and silence, and maybe even more if they’re thorough. Maybe you’ll get lots of practice in these skills and you’ll feel more confident in using them. The tricky part is getting into difficult real-life conversations.

The problem?

Although these seminars focus heavily on communication skills, it’s easy to overlook what you’re supposed to be listening for. Your ability to listen for key details can make all the difference when you encounter difficult or high-stress situations in real life. Being able to hear what’s being said and what’s not being said can give you invaluable insight into the other person and provides opportunities to deepen and strengthen the relationship. That’s the real key to getting the outcome you want.

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The key to active listening is being able to identify these 8 domains. Under each heading are additional questions that can help you conceptualize what you’re assessing for:

  1. Emotions – Listen for the strong base emotions, like fear, anxiety, anger, etc. These drive almost all our behavior. The better you can recognize these emotions, the more effectively you can respond and work to reduce the fight/flight/freeze response in difficult conversations.
  2. Worldview – How do they see the world? Do they believe in fairness/equity? Or do they prefer to see negotiations and conflicts as opportunities to win/dominate the other party? If fairness and equity are important to them, you can appeal to their desire to find a win-win.
  3. Values – What is important to them? What principles/beliefs guide their decision making (we recommend decision-making skills training)? How can you assess AND tap into what’s important to them? Once you determine what is important to them, you can reframe your requests and needs in a way that they also find valuable.
  4. Communication style – Is their communication style more direct or indirect? Are they more task-oriented or process-oriented? Do they want to get straight to the point or do they find value in spending some conversation time in relationship building? Read and feel their body language to diagnose how they prefer their communication. The more you can “speak their language,” the more favorably they’ll respond to you.
  5. Interests/motivations – You want to listen for what motivates them. You want to hear what’s important to them and how you can help them preserve that. On the flip side, you’ll want to listen for what they are trying to avoid. What pain points exist that you can help them avoid?
  6. Aspirations – What are their goals and aspirations? Most of the time, these are underlying goals. It’s possible they may not even recognize what their true goals are.
  7. Opportunities to strengthen the relationship – Are there opportunities where you can help the other person and help meet their needs? In high stress situations, there may exist opportunities for you to provide value for them and build a sense of trust in the relationship.
  8. How they process information – How do they process information and make decisions? Do they prefer data and prefer to think logically or do they rely on gut and emotions to make decisions? You’ll want to listen for their preferences to decide which information makes the most sense for them.


If you’ll notice a theme, the goal for many of these is learning how to modify the way you present your needs and requests to help understand the other person better and help yourself be understood better as well.

How can you practice this skill? Fortunately, there’s a simple and easy way to practice these skills. Start listening for these domains in your everyday conversations, and other people will quickly notice your improved ability to hear and understand them.

Chris Wong
Chris Wong

Chris Wong is a licensed therapist, certified executive coach, and Founder/Owner of Leadership Potential, where he helps leaders develop confident communication skills in challenging situations and relationships. Chris has helped countless professionals navigate complex situations with confidence and achieve exceptional results. He has worked in the nonprofit space creating and implementing leadership and organizational development initiatives to foster a strong leadership pipeline within the organization.

Certified as an executive coach, he works with human service nonprofit executives to create engaged and human-centric workforces so they can focus on the impact they want to have. This includes helping leaders navigate difficult conversations, resolve conflicts, create high performing cultures, enhance productivity, and cultivate an inclusive and equitable work environment. Chris’s expertise spans diverse areas, including leadership development, strategic planning, leading change, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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