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Mediator Tips: Active Listening

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

Psychiatrist Karl Menninger, 1893-1990

Recently, I’ve spoken to several small business owners, salespeople, and fellow mediators and professional facilitators about how the skills used in mediation translate to so many other arenas of life. The most important one, I think, is listening well. Great listening skills can help pretty much all the time: at work, in friendships, while parenting kids of any age, and when talking to neighbors, clients, friends, loved ones… pretty much anyone.

We all have a basic need to be listened to, to be understood. Listening to understand helps you comprehend, sympathize, and identify with the other person. In conflicts, and often throughout life, only when a person feels that their story (or point of view) has been heard (understood, empathized with, validated) can they consider solutions, next steps, compromises, and moving forward.

There are several components to active listening.

  1. Shut off your thoughts, as much as you can.

    • Have you ever noticed, while listening to someone else, that your mind is actually focused on something else? They finish or pause what they’re saying, and you have completely lost the thread of their story. You may have no idea what words they just used, or it may take you a minute to even realize they’ve stopped talking!

    • Avoid this by using your body. Face toward the person who is speaking, on their eye level if possible, making eye contact if possible. Lean toward them.

    • Plan in advance. Prep your mind to listen actively by thinking ahead of time about what you think they may talk about, what questions you may have, and how to keep your questions open-ended. But be careful here - you do not want to focus so much on your own expectations that you shut out their words and feelings!

    • Be meditative. Basically, you want to avoid thinking about whatever you were just doing, and be fully in the moment with them. When we meditate, our minds wander, then we notice each thought, discard it and bring our minds back to the meditation. That’s what you should do when actively listening.

  2. Do not judge.

    • We’re human. Judgment serves a purpose. And in some cultures, like here in America, judgment can be a default setting. For whatever reason, many of us internally judge others all the time.

    • If you really want to listen well, suspend judgment. If a judgment pops into your head, set it aside. Remember that they have not asked you for an assessment. (And frankly even if they have, it is important to understand first where they are coming from - which is best done with active listening.)

    • Even when you disagree with a person’s actions or point of view, you can still give them the respect that comes with simply listening and paying attention to them.

  3. Engage non-verbally.

    • In other words, try not to interrupt, but give signs that you hear them. In addition to eye contact, this may include nodding or smiling, laughing if they share something funny, maybe even rolling your eyes if they’ve said something witty or sarcastic.

    • You’re already facing them. Use your stance and your face to show them you follow every word they say.

    • If you’re someone who listens better when you are not looking directly at a person, you may want to share that in advance - “I want to hear your whole story, but I find that if I’m looking at you in front of that window I may get distracted. I’m going to close my eyes and focus my mind on your words.”

  4. Attend to their emotions.

    • Notice the emotions they display through word choice, tone of voice, where their eyes move. If you are maintaining eye contact, do you notice any micro expressions?

    • Are they primarily looking down or away from you? Are their words matter-of-fact, sad or angry, hopeful or joyful?

    • Are their arms hugging their body? Or, are they sitting in an opened-up kind of way, taking up as much space as their body can fill?

  5. Check for understanding.

    • There are several ways to make sure you understand the person who is speaking. Asking open-ended questions will draw them out more. Open-ended questions are a great clue for the speaker that you are interested and want to hear more details.

    • Ask close-ended questions when you have a specific or factual question. Perhaps you misheard them or you want to understand something in particular. Be careful about close-ended questions, though. The point of active listening is not to ask questions that can lead to a solution, it’s just to hear and comprehend.

  6. Reflect back what you heard.

    • Reflecting back can happen in many ways, and it serves two purposes. First, it’s how you demonstrate that you did, in fact, listen to them. When they hear you paraphrase, summarize, or even repeat exactly what they said, they know you heard them.

    • Second, reflecting back is an important way to check your understanding. Maybe you heard the word “angry” and when you paraphrased you used the word “furious” but then the person says, “No, no, I wasn’t furious, I was just frustrated” - well then you have learned more about their emotional state. Remember that the point here is to understand, so getting a correction helps you better comprehend the story.

When you listen actively to another person, you focus on them and all the substance and emotion they convey. Like Karl Menninger said, it is the people who listen to us that we move toward. The power of listening helps the people with whom we engage, whether they are loved ones, work colleagues, clients, or providing us with a service like doctors and sales clerks. Listening well is always a good skill.


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