Now can you remember the last time you had a conversation where you listened to the other person and managed to capture the essence of their experience? Imagine how that person felt when you listened to them and understood their words. It is a fundamental human need to be heard, and by listening to and understanding someone, whether in mediation or in day-to-day interactions, we are more likely to have thriving, authentic, and empathetic relationships. Sadly, the art of listening, a skill which is paramount in communicating effectively, is sometimes poorly understood in today’s society, largely because of external distractions. The advent of social media and smartphones further exacerbates the problem.
In the last few decades, social scientists have coined the phrase “active listening” as a means by which to improve our communications. Active listening is defined as not only listening to the words but understanding the message being conveyed behind the words. This includes focusing on hidden signals and emotions being conveyed by the speaker using both verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is when messages or information are communicated through words. On the other hand, non-verbal communication is a mode of expression that does not rely on words. Examples include body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and eye contact.
There are various levels of listening, as well as various techniques to improve listening skills. These skills can be learned, and if applied correctly, can have a tremendous impact on one’s quality of life.
There are many concepts of listening within the field of mediation, from active listening, to what is now called reflective listening, and to empathic, appreciative or dialogic listening. In essence, the goal is the same – being able to truly listen to and understand someone. Richard Salem has described empathic listening as “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust.” We can use techniques such as reflecting, paraphrasing, summarising and acknowledging, as well as labeling emotions, all in an effort to listen to and better understand our friends, colleagues, and family members. This helps to foster trust and to build rapport in any relationship.
Your life story shapes your reality and experience. When it comes to conflicts, a person’s story tends to influence why the conflict has occurred in the first place. It also influences their approach to resolution and how, and to what extent, they “show up” at the mediation table and, in a broader sense, how they “show up” in the world. Being given the opportunity to share their story at the mediation table enables people to listen to themselves for the first time, to understand themselves in relation to their own experience, and to be heard.
By allowing people to tell their story and listening to them properly, we validate them and their life experiences. We acknowledge them as people. We acknowledge their pain and their experience as real. Sometimes, this itself is enough. Though we may look for a “solution” and be focused on this, mediation is not just about finding a solution, it is also about understanding the problem. Many times, problems fall away after they have been expressed, heard, and acknowledged.
There are a few things we can do on a daily basis to improve the way we listen and allow others to be heard:
- Face the speaker
- Maintain eye contact
- Be attentive but relaxed
- Suspend judgment
- Be patient
- Reflect, paraphrase, and summarise
- Ask appropriate questions, ideally open-ended and clarifying questions
- Identify feelings
- Be aware of verbal and non-verbal cues
- Avoid unsolicited advice and solutions
- Be empathetic
Listening truly is an art and if we all put more effort into listening and understanding in our daily lives, we are more likely to have thriving, authentic, and empathetic relationships.
Jenna Bata is a Certified Mediation Trainer for the Aga Khan International Conciliation and Arbitration Board. She has a background in law, business and legal practice, has extensive commercial experience in the Middle East, and specialises in cross-border/cross-culture dispute resolution.
Ashraf Ramji is a Certified Mediation Trainer for the Aga Khan International Conciliation and Arbitration Board. He is a trained lawyer with over 25 years of experience representing clients in private practice. He is also a former Chairman for the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board for the United States of America and is the recipient of the Association for Conflict Resolution’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the field of mediation and training.