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Resolve Conflicts Through Active Listening

Barrington M. Salmon | 7/27/2011, 7:04 a.m.

For the past several weeks, President Barack Obama and House Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have engaged in high-stakes discussions about raising America's debt ceiling. If both sides can come to some agreement, the country will avoid the prospect of being unable to pay its bills and risking default. The talks, which have bounced between brinksmanship and efforts at bipartisan consensus, could use a healthy dose of active listening, said Marva Shand McIntosh.

"Listening is very hard to do because we were raised to speak first and not listen. Like most people, I took listening for granted," she said. "But I educated myself at conferences and seminars. Listening skills is a world unto itself - it has really changed my world." She described listening as a function of the ear, but active listening as a function of the will. To master active listening, she said, people have to "will" themselves to listen.

Shand McIntosh,* *a speech pathologist with District of Columbia Public Schools, cited examples of those who can benefit from active listening: they include people who disagree, diplomats, business owners, employees, adults -- and young people. In every case, she said, people have an innate desire to be heard.

Michael Levy, a local attorney, agrees. He said he used to think he listened well, but learned to become an active listener. As a result, his life is the better for it.

Levy, 48, said noted author Stephen Covey first made him aware of the idea of active listening.

"He said people are either speaking or preparing to speak. It made me think of where I was and I have been more aware since then," he explained.

Levy, a Virginia resident and father of two, admitted to not always being* *the keenest listener. However, dealing with his daughters forced him "to switch modes to really listen to them." "Now that they're older, I have realized I need to really hear what they're saying."

Levy said his wife, Faith, has told him he's not the best listener in the world, so he has worked harder to be more attentive by establishing and maintaining eye contact and by each repeating what the other has said.

Richard Cunningham, a student at One Peters Adventist School, spoke excitedly of his listening project. His video presentation - which he took about two days to produce - was a mix of audio, video and pictures. He said his life has changed significantly since he began listening to the advice his principal offered.

"Before Miss Savory came, I used to get into a lot of trouble," the 15 -year-old said. "I began to listen to her and it began to make a difference."

Richard has now channeled his anger into schoolwork and other interests, Savory said.

If people keep in mind that everyone has an innate desire to be heard, that will help defuse some potentially volatile situations, Shand McIntosh said. Del McFadden, a youth counselor with the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative in Northwest, works around-the-clock to douse the flames of youth violence that flare up in the District.