While the list of “important” negotiation skills is robust, if I had to pick one above all others, it’s listening – which is both terribly important and terribly underutilized. In the early 2000’s during my initial training as faculty for the Center for Negotiation & Dispute Resolution at UC Hastings College of the Law, I learned a method for teaching Negotiation students cultivated by psychotherapist Judi MacMurray, who granted permission for us to share her methodology. This chapter of my blog is a compilation of her tutorial and my own adaptations and experience with listening over the years. Consider it a step-by-step guide – not just in negotiation, but in everyday life. Like everything else, it takes practice:

When I taught the Listening module to law students, I would start the lesson by asking for a show of hands of those who were told as a kid that they’d make a good attorney  some day because they were good at talking / arguing. Invariable, several hands shot into the air. Then I would ask how may of them were told they would make a good attorney some day because they were a good listener. In all my years of teaching (in the U.S. and abroad), not a single hand was raised in response to that prompt.

According to psychotherapists, three key traits of good listeners are that they are nonjudgmental, sincere (meaning your “insides match outside”), and empathetic.

Why is this so important?
*Establishes better understanding
*Builds rapport, trust, credibility
*Information gathering: to negotiate a good deal, need to know what the other side wants and needs
*Shows respect
*If other side does not feel heard, they may shut down
*Triggers Reciprocity [see this blog – January 2019)

As Steven Covey wrote: “Seek first to understand rather than seeking to be understood” (though I don’t think he is the originator of that advice. Don’t quote me on this, but I have a vague recollection from studying the Classics at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Prairie View, IL that this thought originates from Plato’s Republic).

And I have good news: you already know how to do it (but most likely haven’t been practicing it). This simple model is based on ordinary listening skills that you can practice everyday.

Step 1: SET AN INTENTION (to pay attention). This step has 2 parts:

(a) Choose to listen – instead of fading in and out – with a purpose of understanding what the other part is saying and what makes it important to them. This means being curious. Listen for two categories: content and emotion. This means managing distractions. (b) Pay attention. What gets in the way of this? NOISE (see step two) – not external, ambient noise, but your internal noise: errands, emails, work, a pinging phone and social media alerts, “I’m getting hungry.” Setting an intention is a VERY powerful anchor. If you don’t set an intention to listen, you won’t be listening effectively. You’ll get bits and pieces. You might get “most” of it, but you won’t get all of it.

Step 2: MANAGE YOUR “NOISE” (Noise = anything that distracts you)

“Me Too” – identification / projection
“Been There, Done that and here’s what you need to do” – Advice
“I’ll Save you!” – rescue / co-dependency
“Oh, how terrible” – sympathy (having your own feelings and wanting to express them)
“What a stupid thing to do!” or “I can’t believe she’s so upset over something like this!” –judgment
“You are wrong and I know what is right” – authority / wanting to set the speaker straight.
“Who did what to whom, when and why?” – interrogation. You ask questions you think are important and control the conversation.
“Tell me about your childhood” – analyst
“I don’t want to hear this” – censor

Paying Attention means (a) tracking the speaker and (b) tracking yourself. You can’t eliminate your noise, but you can learn to manage it. Notice the noise and then refocus on your intention to listen (This is referred to as the “LISTENING LOOP.” You will navigate this loop a few times while listening to someone for 5 minutes: set intention, focus, notice noise creeping in, manage noise, re-set intention, etc.) When you pay attention, you listen for two things: (a) content; and (b) feelings (consider feelings another category of facts). Noise pulls you away from their story and focuses on your story – e.g. thinking about what you want to say next.

Pro Tip: Being quiet while you wait for your turn to talk is not the same as listening.


Remaining quiet as the other person gushes, while you nod your head and then finally say, “I understand” is incomplete. How do you know you understand? How do they know you understand? Maybe you misunderstood something. Maybe their thoughts aren’t organized and they haven’t expressed a thought accurately. The job of a skilled listener could be described as helping the talker talk. By reflecting back (that is, summarizing / recapping both content and emotions), you accomplish:

*Empathy (a powerful tool in negotiation, plus dopamine secretion in the brain by the speaker, who feels “seen” in addition to heard)
*Clarification (“no, that’s not what I meant. I meant . . . ”)
*Verification (“yes, that’s right!”)
*Encouragement (which gets you even more information)
*De-escalation (and slowing down the excretion of cortisol in the brain of the speaker)

How many times have you been in a conversation where the other person repeats themselves over and over again like a broken record? Often this happens because they don’t feel they’ve been heard.

Think of your goal like this: to listen to that other person like they have never been listened to before. You concede nothing by doing this: understanding somebody does not mean you agree with them.

Recap: (1) Set Intention (to pay attention – content and feelings); (2) Manage Noise; (3) Reflection – summarize their story (facts) and emotion (why speaker cares)

Like all other negotiations skills, Listening isn’t a superpower unless you practice it and develop it like honing and toning any other muscle. I have actually been in several negotiations in my legal career where I have demonstrated listening to the party on the opposing side better than their own attorney has. And guess what that makes me?

The most powerful person in the room.

Lucia Kanter St. Amour, Pactum Factum Principal