Makarios Consulting Blog

Dueling Monologues vs. Active Listening: How to Improve Social Awareness

In our continuing series on emotional intelligence, we are moving from self-awareness and self-management into the social space as we now turn to social awareness. As defined by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves in their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0,

“Social awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on with them. This often means perceiving what other people are thinking and feeling even if you do not feel the same way…. Listening and observing are the most important elements of social awareness. To listen well and observe what’s going on around us, we have to stop doing many things we like to do. We have to stop talking, stop the monologue that may be running through our minds, stop anticipating the point the other person is about to make, and stop thinking ahead to what we are going to say next.”

It takes enormous discipline and practice to get good at this because by nature we do not listen to understand – we listen to respond. In moments of tension (where social awareness is most critical and least in evidence), this natural tendency can devolve into what we call “dueling monologues.”

In dueling monologues, one person gives vent to their perspective in an emotionally-charged manner. The other person, however, is not really listening. Rather, they are marshalling their counterarguments for the moment they can get a word in edgewise. As soon as they can (which may involve a rude interruption), they launch their attack. And so it goes, back and forth. Neither party is heard, because neither party is listening.

In contrast, active listening requires us to engage in dialogue with the other person; we are not just looking for an opening to voice our own thoughts. We are listening because we truly want to understand what the other person is saying and how they are feeling, whether or not we end up agreeing with them.

There are two particularly useful tools when it comes to active listening – paraphrasing and reflection:

  • Paraphrasing deals with the content of a conversation: the facts, figures, events, and issues at hand. When you paraphrase, you deliver an accurate, neutral summary of the key data in the conversation. Again, you want to demonstrate understanding, not necessarily agreement or disagreement. Be brief: you are recapping the conversation, not playing it back verbatim.
  • Reflection deals with the emotions involved in a conversation. Here, you reflect back to the receiver what you are hearing about their feelings, e.g., “That must make you frustrated,” or “It sounds like you’re at the end of your rope.” Through reflection, you show that you understand and respect a person’s emotions. In tense situations, reflection can take you from being the person’s adversary to becoming the person’s advocate. It often helps both parties move past the emotion to a calmer discussion of the issue at hand.

You might be thinking to yourself, “I don’t have time for this!” After all, you have competing deadlines, multiple priorities, and tough decisions crowding your day. That is indisputable … but it is also indisputable that active listening and therefore social awareness take time. You have to slow down and attend to the moment and the person/people you are with. There is no alternative; you cannot “fast-track” social awareness. You have to consciously take the time required to understand what the other person is saying and how the other person is feeling.

Here is the good news: social awareness reaps incredible benefits since it builds an atmosphere of affirmation, respect, and trust. Many times, the value can be seen immediately. My (Tim’s) classic story about this took place more than fifteen years ago. A client and I were initiating a project for which we required the support of a well-respected vendor. We needed to have a conversation with him, but my client ended up rescheduling the call three times. When we finally got on the phone with the vendor, he went ballistic. He gave full voice (literally as well as figuratively) to how we had not respected his time and rudely canceled the previously-scheduled calls, etc., etc., etc.

As he went on and on, I instant-messaged my client and asked, “When is this guy going to stop whining?” (As a side note, this was fifteen years ago … just remembering my insensitivity makes me cringe!)

My client, in a brilliant display of social awareness, replied, “When he feels heard.”

She maintained her own calm (showing self-management) and used paraphrasing and reflection to affirm what the vendor was saying and how he was feeling. The outcome? A collaborative and productive call that led to a supremely successful project – all because she took the time to actively listen, re-establishing trust in the process.

Slow down. Listen. Observe. What are the people around you really saying? How are they really feeling? As you become more socially aware, you will be better equipped to engage in social management. That is the topic of our next blog in this series, so stay tuned!