Active Listening to avoid “fight or flight”

Useful tools to help stay in dialog.

In a previous article I wrote for Michigan State University Extension, titled “TEA can help a crucial conversation”, I highlighted steps to begin a difficult conversation. The article discusses the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler as a tool to learn more about having those difficult conversations. This article discusses the next step in that 3-part process by moving from “Preserving the Relationship” to “Creating Safety.”

In order to effectively have a meaningful conversation in a safe environment, it is important to stay in dialog and avoid a “fight or flight” response from either party. Dialog can be defined as the “free flow of meaning between two people.” The fight or flight response can be described as either violence (communicating in a way that is abusive and insulting) or silence (refusing to speak their mind). An essential part of staying in dialog is to practice active listening skills and learn the steps in the Active Listening Skills Continuum:

Ask: Listening begins with someone talking. Sometimes, to get a conversation going, all it takes is a simple question: “What do you think about that?” “How are you feeling about that?” “What’s your view?”

Probe and Guess: Use gentle questioning to help others share their thoughts and feelings if someone has withdrawn and is silent. If they are still not talking, guess what they might be thinking and ask them if you’re right. This should help them feel safer sharing.

Attend: Focus the mind on what is being communicated: pay complete attention and suspend judgment—hear the words, notice emotions and show nonverbal empathy. It is rare that people listen to each other with full attention.

Restate: Repeat what was said, using words close to those of the speaker. This reassures the speaker that you are listening.

Paraphrase: Restate what you think the speaker meant, using your own words. Begin with phrases like: “So I think you’re saying…”; “I’m hearing that…”, “Let me see if I understand…”, “So your view is that…” This helps the speaker know you truly understand what they are trying to communicate.

Summarize: Paraphrase, adding your understanding of the emotion the speaker is expressing; this can also be called “mirroring”. Use phrases like: “I sense that you’re feeling…”, “I get the impression that…”, “Maybe you’re feeling…”  This legitimizes the speaker’s feelings and often helps them release negative emotions so they can look towards constructive solutions.

Reframe: State the situation in neutral language, describing what you have understood the speaker really wants. For example, from “I’m sick & tired of the way they make me do most of the work,” to “I’m hearing that you’d like them to share the load and be equal partners in this project.” This leads into envisioning constructive solutions to the problem.

Visit to learn more about your style under stress. To learn how to better handle yourself the next time you find yourself in a “crucial” conversation, consider reading Crucial Conversations, sign up for Conflict Smoothies Online Series and practice preserving the relationship using TEA. Finally, make sure to stay in dialog by creating safety through active listening. 

Related Articles