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How to Listen Like a Mediator

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

Mediators are masters of listening well. Conflict has a habit of turning conversations into competitions, with each statement feeling like a serve that you have to return in order to win a point. Mediators transform the purpose of these conversations from “winning” to understanding one another and working towards resolution, and effective listening skills are a key part of the process.

If you want to change the way you have conversations and improve your listening skills, learn to listen like a mediator. Consider the following tips to get started:

1. Listen to understand, not to respond

Focusing on understanding rather than responding to the speaker is important for several reasons. It shows the speaker you care enough to let her finish speaking. It allows you to get a more complete picture of what the speaker wants, needs, and thinks, which provides you with essential information to use when you do respond. And it sets the expectation that when you speak, the other person will listen as well.

Mediators work to quiet our inner voice, which urges us to interrupt or let our minds wander. By doing this, we let the parties guide the conversation towards what is most important to them. Here’s a few tips to focus your attention on listening to understand rather than respond:

  • Write down any questions or responses that are important to you. It is only human to want to take part in the conversation, and you’ll have time once the speaker is done talking to address your points. For now, give the speaker space to be heard.
  • If listening to the speaker is difficult, negotiate with yourself to be curious. Remind yourself that you have a lot to gain from understanding where he’s coming from and what he thinks.
  • If you feel yourself drifting away from the conversation, check your body language. By making eye contact and keeping your body language open (avoid crossed arms or leaning away from the speaker), you communicate your willingness to listen, and you remind yourself of that goal as well.

2. Avoid jumping to conclusions

In Dalton Kehoe’s Effective Communication Skills, he talks about a series of studies on how doctors talk to their patients. On average, the study found that doctors typically interrupted their patients’ opening statements within 15-20 seconds to begin diagnosing. However, because the patients didn’t always start with the most important facts regarding their illness, the doctors were missing key information to diagnose more effectively. After hearing a few facts, they jumped to a conclusion.

Let’s cut the doctors some slack – we all do this. Jumping to conclusions is fun, and it’s satisfying because we all like solving problems and being right. But assumptions are detrimental to good listening because they shift the focus from the speaker to you. And don’t forget what happens when you assume.

As mediators, we hear many cases with similar details and concerns. People in conflict are often upset about and looking for the same things – respect, understanding, and resolution, for instance. However, no matter how similar two situations may seem, they are always unique. We listen to what the speaker says and avoid placing our own conclusions and judgments on the things they say.

When listening to the speaker, you can avoid making assumptions by focusing on what you hear, not what you think about the things you hear. Summarize what you’ve heard so far and ask yourself: did the speaker say this, or am I saying this about the speaker? This helps you to remain focused on understanding the speaker’s perspective rather than your own conclusions.

3. Ask questions before responding

You have listened intently, you avoided interrupting, and you feel like you understand the speaker’s perspective. Now it’s your turn to jump in with your own thoughts, right?

Not quite yet. Think about what you have heard, and then ask questions for clarification. Mediators do this to make sure they fully understand the parties and to give them a chance to follow-up on any points they made. And ultimately, asking follow-up questions lets the speaker know that you are really trying to understand him.

If you are in conflict with the speaker, this can be difficult. You have probably spent a lot of willpower while listening for understanding and avoiding jumping to conclusions. At this point, it is natural that you want to be heard as well. Asking more questions – and listening to the responses – can feel like tacking on an extra mile at the end of a marathon.

Mediators know that listening takes energy and patience. Sometimes, we may feel impatient if someone spoke for a long time. We may feel like we already understand the party’s perspective and want to move forward with the process. We may feel worn out after a particularly high-energy session and struggle to think of follow-up questions we want to ask.

Give yourself a moment to think about what you have heard, and then ask yourself if you would benefit from any other information. Identify statements or conclusions that confuse you. Focus your questions on what you really want to know, and negotiate with yourself to be curious. If you can’t think of anything poignant to ask, that’s okay. You can ask a question that mediators use often: is there anything else?

Contact Chuck Doran at cdoran@mwi.org or 617-895-4026 to learn more aboutMWI’s mediation services and what you can gain from completing a mediation training.

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