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Guideline for neighbour problems / COMMUNICATING: 3.1 Active listening

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

During the orientation process of the available literature, we were able to identify the following interventions for respecting in neighbour disputes:

  • Reacting defensively
  • Active listening 

Individuals have a natural desire to develop and maintain a positive self-image. When, in the course of conflict or negotiation, one’s positive self-image and deeply held beliefs feel threatened, there is a tendency to react defensively (De Dreu, p. 149). 


Defensiveness can be defined as a somewhat hostile, emotional state which causes individuals to either partially or totally reject messages or other stimuli which they perceive to be incorrect or contradictory to their point of view (Baker, p. 33). A defensive party to conflict typically devotes a significant portion of their energy to thinking about how they appear to others, how they may be seen more favourably, how they may win or escape punishment, and how they may avoid or mitigate a perceived or anticipated attack (Gibb, p. 14).


The International Listening Association defines listening as, “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages” (ILA, 2012; Weger et al., p. 14). Active listening sharply contrasts with defensiveness in that it requires that parties to conflict devote considerable energy towards trying to understand the point of view of the other. Active listening can be used in a variety of contexts, but is most often characterized by the following three practices. An active listener:

  • Non-verbally communicates their involvement in the conversation by giving the speaker their unconditional attention;
  • Paraphrases the speaker’s message (the content and the feelings associated with it) by restating, without judgement and in their own words, what they think the speaker is trying to say;
  • Asks questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate on their beliefs or feelings (Weger, Castle & Emmett, p. 35).

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to a neighbour dispute looking to build mutual respect, is active listening more effective than reacting defensively for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: neighbour disputes; communication; neighbour relations; neighbour conversation; neighbour dialogue; interpersonal conflict communication, communication in conflict; active listening; defensiveness; defensive reactions; neighbour negotiation

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to our research method, we grade the evidence on active listening and defensiveness in neighbour conflict as low. While existing studies are of high quality, none pertain to neighbour conflict in particular, and significant gaps in empirical research remain.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Reacting Defensively
Active Listening
Contentious or defensive tactics are sometimes needed to underline the firmness that effective problem-solving requires. A vigorous defense of one’s position on certain issues, in contrast to others, may contribute to conflict resolution by helping the other party understand one’s priorities and thus locate an acceptable exchange of concessions (Pruitt, p. 853).
Active listening improves mutual understanding. Parties to a mediation who are skilled in active listening are better equipped to maximize accurate information exchange (Moore, 1996) and to hear the concerns and needs of the others present (Umbreit, 1996; Phillips, p. 163). A recent study found that individuals who were actively listened to in peer-to-peer interactions felt more understood by their partners than individuals who received either advice or simple acknowledgements (Weger et al., p. 13).
In addition to improved understanding of a counterpart’s position (informational benefits), listening behavior yields relational benefits such as increased likeability, trust, and influence (Blader & Tyler, 2003; Detert & Burris, 2007; Yukl, Kim, & Falbe, 1996; Ames et al., p. 347). The paraphrasing component of active listening in particular has been shown to increase perceptions of the listener’s likeability (Weger Jr., Castle & Emmett, p. 44). Relational benefits are conducive to neighbour well-being.
Training in active listening has been shown to contribute to positive conflict resolution outcomes. A randomized study of 48 university students found that those who received a 1-hour training session in active listening (along with two other cooperative conflict resolution skills) increased their use of active listening during conflict interactions and were more likely to arrive at a win-win solution than those who did not receive the training (Davidson & Wood, p. 7-9, Davidson & Versluys, 1999). A more recent study of romantic couples’ serial arguments found that active listening associates positively with problem solving, relationship stability, and perceived resolvability of the problem, and associates negatively with intrusive thoughts during arguments (Reznik, Roloff & Miller, 2012; Weger et al., p. 16).
Active listening helps deal with anger (in the form of blaming, confronting, or attacking), which presents one of the biggest challenges to resolving conflict. One party’s needs are more likely to be heard by the other party if, through active listening, that party first demonstrates that they have understood the other’s needs (Raider, Coleman, & Gerson, p. 713).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Reacting Defensively
Active Listening
Defensiveness obstructs objective and efficient communication by distorting what is said and heard by parties in conflict. Defensive behavior engenders defensive listening, and this in turn produces postural, facial, and verbal cues which raise the defense level of the original speaker. Defensive arousal prevents the listener from concentrating upon the original speaker’s message. Not only do defensive communicators send off multiple value, motive, and affect cues, but also defensive listeners distort what they receive. As a person becomes more and more defensive, he or she becomes less and less able to perceive accurately the motives, values, and emotions of the original speaker (Gibb, p. 14). An analysis of tape recorded discussions in a variety of settings found that increases in defensive behavior were positively correlated with losses in communication efficiency. Specifically, distortions became greater when defensive states existed in the groups (Gibb, 1961).
Active listening in conflict may be difficult to achieve without training, which neighbours in conflict cannot realistically be expected to have. A randomized study of 48 university students found that levels of active listening (and appropriate assertiveness) did not significantly increase when a participant interacted with a trained partner, as was predicted. In relation to these two measures, the results indicated that regardless of the training condition of the partner, individuals untrained in conflict resolution are more likely to communicate their views aggressively or not explain adequately their concerns, as well as ignore, interrupt, and criticize the other party during a dyadic conflict interaction. It seems that individuals need direct training in these skills to listen and understand another party’s interests, and to communicate their own underlying interests when resolving conflict (Feeney & Davidson, p. 266).
Defensiveness contributes to escalation, which typically increases the number of issues under dispute. Escalation, characterized as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” by Robert Merton (1952), occurs when defensiveness and mistrust motivate cautious or controlling moves, which elicit a defensive and hostile counteraction that is then perceived as justifying the initial action (Fisher, p. 184; De Dreu, p. 150). Escalation often increases the number of issues under dispute from the basic issues that the conflict is perceived to be about to process issues that arise from how the two parties treat each other (Fisher, p. 184).
If active listening is done too warmly, it runs the risk of signaling weakness and thus diminishing the other’s willingness to concede. A 1971 study examining the effects of warmth of interaction, accuracy of understanding, and proposal of compromises on listeners’ behavior in negotiations between college students found that when one individual expresses warmth towards another, it reinforces that his or her position is superior in a way that is not conducive to reaching an agreement (Johnson, p. 215).

Balance of Outcomes

Taken together, the available research suggests that active listening techniques such as non-verbal cues, non-judgmental paraphrasing, and open questions are conducive to greater mutual understanding and enhanced communication between parties to conflict. There is also evidence to suggest that active listening improves conflict resolution outcomes by increasing trust, likeability, and influence, and by diffusing anger between parties. In contrast, reacting defensively distorts what is said and heard by parties, escalates conflict, and may increase the number of issues under dispute (from substantive to procedural). All of these outcomes are detrimental to neighbours’ well-being.

The desirable outcomes of active listening outweigh those of reacting defensively, and the undesirable outcomes of reacting defensively outweigh those of active listening. Defensive behaviours that obstruct mutual understanding and trigger escalation are particularly damaging in neighbour conflicts, in which seemingly insignificant issues often spiral out of control due to ineffective communication. Therefore, active listening is preferred.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the value of interventions that enhance communication between neighbours in conflict, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a neighbour dispute looking to build mutual respect, active listening is more conducive to well-being than reacting defensively.

Table of Contents

3. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
3.1 Active listening