I like to think of myself as an empathetic person and someone who has a fair amount of emotional intelligence.  However, those innate attributes are constantly challenged in the polarized world we live in today.  We are left or right.  We believe in vaccines, or we don’t.  Black live matter, all lives matter…The list of divisions seems endless these days and more often than I’d like to admit, I feel ready to blow my top rather than sucking it in and being zen.

This got me thinking about the communication fundamentals worth revisiting.  A friend recalled a recent conversation with a man at a networking event in which she shared with her joy about Kentanji Brown Jackson being confirmed as our newest U.S. Supreme Court justice – the first Black woman to do so.  This man’s response to her was, “well, it is a sorry day in this country when we give preferential treatment to someone based on the color of their skin.”  My friend countered with, “I don’t know where you’ve been, but preferential treatment based on skin color has long been a part of our nation’s DNA – benefitting mostly white people.”  The minute the words were out of her mouth she knew it was a no-win situation because she saw how he felt insulted and was on the defensive.  They both walked away, angry.

Now, back to those fundamentals…


What if the next time you hear something you feel is wrong headed or misinformed, you countered with curiosity rather than contempt.  My colleague and I wondered if a better reaction to the comment might have been, “Interesting, I’d like to hear more.  What did you find lacking in Judge Jackson’s background or experience?” or “I’m curious, do you think there is value in having the makeup of the court reflect the great diversity we have in this country?”  Next, just listen.


When things are heated, pay attention to the emotion you see surfacing in the other person and label it with “It seems like…It sounds like…or it looks like…”. “It sounds like you felt the process was unfair, tell me more about that.”  Try to avoid, “what I’m hearing you say is…” as that can come across as you being more invested in your perspective than theirs.


As you know a big percentage of the meaning of a communication comes from the tone of your voice (as much as 38%).  Pay attention to this nuance and respond to it.  “I heard you say ‘yes’ but something in your tone makes me think you are hesitant.  Can you tell me more?”


In Kate Murphy’s book, You’re Not Listening, she discusses this technique.  Most commonly in informal conversation, we tend to shift response, which means we direct attention away from the speaker and toward ourselves.  Less common, and much more impactful, is when we use a support response which encourages elaboration from the speaker to help us gather greater understanding.  An example of both would be:

Bob:  Our cat got out last week and it took four days to find him.

Susan:  Our cat used to do that all the time until we started putting him on a leash.  (shift response)

Bob:  Our cat got out last week and it took four days to find him.

Susan:  Oh my.  That must have been scary.  How did you finally find him?  (support response)

As Murphy states, “Good listeners are all about the support response, which is critical to providing the kind of acknowledgement and evaluative feedback needed to avoid misunderstandings.”

Responding to a conflict with an adversary, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”  These are profound words so applicable to the world we live in today.  We may not change someone’s perspectives or ideas on the spot, but if we do it well, we may begin to heal the divide and bridge towards greater understanding and compassion.