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Advanced Listening Skills for Difficult Situations

Go to any seminar in communication skills and they’ll cover the basics of active listening – reflections, summaries, questions, silence – probably even more if they’re thorough. Maybe you’ll get lots of practice in these skills and you’ll feel more confident in using those skills. The tricky part is when you get into difficult conversations.

The problem?

They focus so much on the skills that it’s easy to overlook what you’re supposed to be listening for. Especially when you get into difficult or high-stress situations – your ability to listen for key details can make all the difference. Being able to hear what’s being said and what’s not being said can give you invaluable insight into the other person and opportunities to deepen and strengthen the relationship. That’s the real key to getting the outcome you want.

>> Register for the webinar:
Strategies and Tactics to Navigate Difficult Conversations with Confidence

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

  • Emotions – Listen for the strong base emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, etc. These drive almost all our behavior. The better you can recognize these, the more effectively you can respond and work to reduce the fight/flight/freeze response in difficult conversations.
  • 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.
  • Values – What is important to them? What principles/beliefs guide their decision making? How can you both assess AND tap into what’s important to them? Once you find out what’s important to them, you can reframe your requests and needs in a way that they can also see the importance of.
  • 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.
  • 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 hear for what they are trying to avoid. What pain points exist that you can help them avoid?
  • Aspirations – Where are their goals and aspirations? These are not what they explicitly tell you, but rather, are their underlying goals. It’s possible they may not even recognize what their true goals are.
  • Opportunities to strengthen the relationship – Where are 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.
  • 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 so you can 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? You’re in luck, because there’s a simple and easy way to practice these skills. You engage in conversations almost every day with other people – so start listening for all these domains and other people will quickly notice your improved ability to hear and understand them.


Written by Chris Wong


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