Build Bridges and Break Down Barriers

Active listeningis an important, but often overlooked part of the problem solving process. Active listening means hearing the whole message.


In addition to listening and watching, itinvolves listening with the "third ear". Ask yourself not only what is the person saying, but what are they trying to say and what are they feeling. There are two components to active listening. The first is building bridges of trust and understanding. The second is breaking barriers which might prevent the message from being fully presented or understood. This article describes these two important problem solving skills.


Three useful skills for building bridges with others include attending, paraphrasing and empathizing…

ATTENDING: Helping the Speaker feel like they’re being heard.
Eye Contact: lets the Speaker know that they are being listened to.
Physical Distance: A comfort zone that will vary from person to person. Use the comfort zone of the Speaker, not the listener.
Posture: A relaxed and open posture will encourage the Speaker to be relaxed and open also.
Facial or hand gestures Reflecting the feeling of the Speaker will help them feel they are being understood.
Verbal comment. A few brief words or repeating a key word from the Speakers statement will help them feel that their point has been noted. A specific type of Verbal Feedback is called “mirroring” wherein the Listener Repeats exactly what is said. This is a useful technique when attempting to resolve a conflict with someone who is angry and feels that they are not even being heard.

PARAPHRASING: Used when the other person has a problem or both people are in a conflict with each other. Helping the Speaker feel like they’re being Understood.
The purpose of paraphrasing is to test one1s understanding of what the Speaker has said and to communicate to the Speaker that you are trying to understand their message. If successful, it will indicate that you have been with them during their verbal explorations. A paraphrase executed to the Speaker's satisfaction is one of the most objective tests of understanding.
  1. Listen for basic message.
    Ask yourself not only what they are saying but what they are feeling. What would you be feeling if you were in their place?
  2. If their message is too long or involves more than one or two issues, stop the speaker and paraphrase the message up to that point. Interrupt them with the phrase ”Excuse me, but I want to make sure I understand you”.
  3. Always state your paraphrase as a question: “So what you are saying is ???”. or “Are you feeling ???”
  4. Make sure your tone of voice is neutral and not judgmental.
  5. Relate to the talker a concise and simple summary of his basic message using both cognitive and feeling information. Relate process information when appropriate. DO NOT RESPOND WITH YOUR OWN POSITION!
  6. Seek approval of your paraphrase from the Speaker. If you do not get it, both should stay on that point until it has been understood. Observe a nod or ask for a response from the Speaker. This confirms the accuracy and helpfulness of the paraphrase for promoting understanding.
I) ASK: How are you Feeling?
II) GUESS THE EMOTION: I imagine you are feeling
III) Validate: That makes sense because
  1. Visualize: Imagine yourself in their position.


There are many barriers to active listening. Most are simply bad habits you may not even be aware of. Below are some of the most common barriers to active listening…
Rushing - We think up to 5 times faster than we can speak. We may thus understand what is being said well before the speaker is done talker. However, we may not fully understand and the speaker may not feel that they have been fully heard. In rushing the speaker, they may also become side-tracked. Avoid cutting the speaker off by allowing them to pause without a response from the listener.

Distractions/Interruptions Seek out a place where conversation can occur without interruptions.

Comparing- Thinking of themselves while someone is talking....comparing their situation or them to the person who is talking.
Mind Reading - Distrusting what the other is saying and not paying much attention to it. Instead, they try to figure out what the other person is really thinking and feeling. Mind readers make “assumptions". They generally do not check out their assumptions.

Rehearsing - Not listening because they are planning on what you will say next.... They may even look interested but their mind is going a mile a minute because they want to tell their story.
Filtering - Listening only to what you want to hear. Not hearing anything threatening or negative.
Judging - Giving power to negative labels. If they prejudge someone as stupid, they won't pay much attention to what they are saying because they have already written them off.
Dreaming – “ Half listening", picking up tidbits of the message but really thinking about something else.
Identifying - Taking everything a person tells them and referring it back to their own experience. They want to tell you about a toothache and you remember an oral surgery experience.
Advising - Assuming the role of “great problem-solver", ready with help and suggestions.
Sparring - Arguing and debating with people rather than hear what the person is saying.
Being Right- Going to any lengths to avoid being wrong. Their convictions are unshakable.
Derailing - Suddenly changing the subject... derailing the train of conversation.. Sometimes people derail by joking about something especially if they feel discomfort about the topic.
Placating - Agreeing with everything a person says because they either want someone to like them or because they want to be nice, pleasant, and supportive. But they are not really tuned-in to what is being said.

Actual radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations, 10-10-95.
#1: please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.
#2: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to South to avoid a collision.
#1: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
#2: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
#2. This is the Puget Sound lighthouse. It's your call.

Team Building This is my daughter's soccer team, the Blue Angels.


They won nearly all of their games because they took time to practice and they worked together as a team. We can learn a lot from these kids about the importance of teamwork. One of the first steps in solving any major problem is building a team of folks who care enough to bring about the change needed to solve the problem. The intent is to create a common vision, a common goal and a pathway to success. Most folks realize that there is a strong connection between public school funding and our economic future. But good public schools are also an important part of solving the health care crisis and our current and future environmental challenges. So there is a good reason for us to all work together to form a winning team.  

All too often, folks see their problems as not being connected to the problems of their neighbors. Some folks worry about the economy and jobs and taxes. Given the current recession, we should all be concerned about our economic future.  Other folks are concerned about the health care crisis. They often see health care and other social issues as “competing” with school funding for limited State dollars. But it is morally wrong to force a child to choose between having a good teacher or a good doctor. The truth is that children and their families need both. Our goal is to find win-win solutions so that we are working together for a better future rather than fighting against each other.

Finally, we will not be able to solve our environmental problems without providing our children with the problem solving skills to seek more creative solutions to these problems. So, as they said in my Environmental Science class: Everything is connected to everything else. The best solution to any one problem is the solution that also addresses all the rest.  However, building a team does not just happen by accident. It takes a lot of dedication, hard work and good will. The following is a Team Building handout I wrote for my Bellevue Community College courses:

By cooperating and working together as a team, we can accomplish much more than any one of us can individually.  Teamwork not only leads to greater safety and greater success, but it is also more fun.

 Team Values
         We treat each other with respect and dignity
         We compliment more than we criticize
         We phrase criticism in positive terms
         We accept responsibility for our actions
         We acknowledge our role in misunderstandings
         We apologize for mistakes we make
         We care about the safety and happiness of all team members
         We act with honesty and integrity
         We value the contributions of all other team members

Problem Solving
         We use problems and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
         We seek input from every member of the team and additional information from many sources.
         We encourage innovation to maximize options and results
         We trust that all team members are doing their best and that none would deliberately create a problem for us.
         We practice active listening by paraphrasing what we think we heard and by asking questions if we do not understand what has been said.
         We focus on finding solutions rather than finding blame.
         We maintain a positive mental attitude to endure challenges.
         We work towards solutions with which all members of the team will succeed and be happy.


         We teach and learn from each other.
         We work toward common goals.
         We work cooperatively rather than competitively.
         We look for opportunities to help teammates.
         We resolve interpersonal conflicts amongst ourselves.
         We have fun.  Laughter is an important part of having fun.  Therefore, each team member should bring at least one new (and politically acceptable) joke to every outing.  Recognize, however, that humor should never be at the expense of any group member (or any other ethnic or cultural group...with the possible exception of “those hated Bulgers” (for those of you who don't know, the Bulgers Climbing Club is the arch rivals of the Bushwackers Climbing Club.. as they both use the name "BCC").

Helping Your Team Leader
Good leadership is important to the success of any group.  You should therefore bring a few extra cookies for your team leader and give your leader the same kind of support and respect that we give the leader of our state or our country...on second thought, you should give your leader much more respect than we give politicians.  If you have any problems with either the team leader or other team members, you should have the courage and faith to tell your team leader, as specifically as you can exactly what the problem is.  Take responsibility to propose at least one possible realistic solution to the problem (This is the difference between complaining and problem solving). 

While team leaders are to be valued and respected, they should never be completely trusted.  Being only human, it should be expected that from time to time they will make a mistake.  As a good team member, you should be prepared for this by practicing a degree of self-sufficiency.  You should know where the team is going and what it is supposed to be doing - bring your own map and compass and use it.  If you notice that the group is getting split up or going in the wrong direction, you should have the confidence and faith to let others, including your team leader, know that you think there is a problem.