Fallston Group

Building Strengthening & Defending reputations

Preventing a Crisis At Its Most Basic Level: The Art of Listening

Image from: LegalVoice

Many issues that start small and grow into full-blown crises are preventable, but recognizing and preventing a crisis takes a certain amount of focus and time that many leaders overlook, until the crisis has nearly spiraled out of control. At that point, hindsight is 20/20.

People and their beliefs and feelings are at the core of many crises: those between consumers and a company, between coworkers, and between employees and management. An issue that arises in any relationship has the potential to cause lasting reputation damage to people and organizations. Yet in all of these interactions, the root cause is usually a breakdown in basic communication. And at the heart of communication is the art of listening.

Listening is not just absorbing what you think someone said. To truly hear someone, they must feel heard. This means the listener must be able to reflect back to the speaker, in different terms, exactly what they said using feelings and values. The ability to do this will save time, money, customers, relationships, and sometimes even careers.


People often use phrases such as, “I feel like…” or “I feel that…”. Anything following ‘like’ or ‘that’ is probably not a feeling. For example: “I feel like everyone is out to get me” is not a feeling. “I feel threatened” expresses a feeling. Most people don’t talk using actual feeling words. When reflecting feelings, people know they’ve been heard when you can reflect an actual feeling they’ve described.


Values are the things that are important to people. They are the “why” behind a feeling. Examples of values are acceptance, hard work, flexibility, equality, justice.

When someone says, “The warning signs are so confusing, no wonder people don’t even bother following them. I have a background in public safety–someone should have asked me for input,” the values they are expressing are clarity and inclusivity.

Example interaction: 

Sam comes into your office and says, “I can’t believe you cut me off during the meeting. I worked on that project for days and you didn’t even let me explain the process.”

You probably have a very good reason Sam didn’t get to speak in the meeting, but he doesn’t see it. If you shut him down now, his resentment will grow. If you make him feel heard, the issue will be over and Sam will actually feel better about things than before the incident happened.

Wrong answer: “Sorry, Sam, but time got away from us. Maybe next time we’ll have the chance to present the whole strategy.” Sam just got shut down. Nothing you said validated how he feels, even though you may be right.

Right answer: “Sam, it sounds like you feel slighted and unappreciated with the way things happened during the meeting. I hear that you value hard work and participation when it comes to talking about the project. Is that right?” (Asking “is that right?” is key – Sam can confirm or correct you, but either way, you are expressing that understanding him matters.) Sam will probably say, “Yeah, that’s right, it’s okay.…” You can follow up with what you might have said before about how there wasn’t time, but Sam feels understood now and his unhappiness won’t escalate with every interaction.

Interactions as simple as this one epitomize the simple beginning of issues that turn into lawsuits, social media tirades, and personnel crises. Sam’s feelings can ultimately cost you time and money, and a similar interaction with a customer or stakeholder can cost you much more.

Practice is important. Reflect feelings and values to everyone you meet using phrases and language that feels natural to you. Sincerity is everything. You will be amazed at how wanting to be understood is often 90% of the issue yet it is something over which you, the listener, have 100% control.

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