The Benefits of Empathic Listening
Empathic listening (also called active listening or reflective listening) is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. It is an essential skill for third parties and disputants alike, as it enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message, and then provide an appropriate response. The response is an integral part of the listening process and can be critical to the success of a negotiation or mediation. Among its benefits, empathic listening
1. builds trust and respect,
2. enables the disputants to release their emotions,
3. reduces tensions,
4. encourages the surfacing of information, and
5. creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.
Though useful for everyone involved in a conflict, the ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets the mediator apart from others involved in the conflict.
Even when the conflict is not resolved during mediation, the listening process can have a profound impact on the parties. Jonathon Chace, associate director of the U.S. Community Relations Service, recalls a highly charged community race-related conflict he responded to more than 30 years ago when he was a mediator in the agency’s Mid-Atlantic office. It involved the construction of a highway that would physically divide a community centered around a public housing project. After weeks of protest activity, the parties agreed to mediation. In the end, the public officials prevailed and the aggrieved community got little relief. When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator’s hand and thanked him for being “different from the others.” “How was I different?” Chace asked. “You listened,” was the reply. “You were the only one who cared about what we were saying.”1
William Simkin, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and one of the first practitioners to write in depth about the mediation process, noted in 1971 that “understanding has limited utility unless the mediator can somehow convey to the parties the fact that [the mediator] knows the essence of the problem. At that point,” he said, “and only then, can (the mediator) expect to be accorded confidence and respect.”2
Simkin was writing about more than the need to understand and project an understanding of the facts. Understanding “is not confined to bare facts,” he said. “Quite frequently the strong emotional background of an issue and the personalities involved may be more significant than the facts.” He suggested that mediators apply “sympathetic understanding,”3 which in reality is empathic listening.
How to Listen with Empathy
Empathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality of another person in order to better understand that person’s emotions or feelings. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know, “I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.” The listener unmistakably conveys this message through words and non-verbal behaviors, including body language. In so doing, the listener encourages the speaker to fully express herself or himself free of interruption, criticism or being told what to do. It is neither advisable nor necessary for a mediator to agree with the speaker, even when asked to do so. It is usually sufficient to let the speaker know, “I understand you and I am interested in being a resource to help you resolve this problem.”
While this article focuses on mediation, it should be apparent that empathic listening is a core skill that will strengthen the interpersonal effectiveness of individuals in many aspects of their professional and personal lives.4 Parties to unassisted negotiations — those that do not involve a mediator — can often function as their own mediator and increase their negotiating effectiveness through the use of empathy. Through the use of skilled listening these “mediational negotiators” can control the negotiation by their:
1. willingness to let the other parties dominate the discussion,
2. attentiveness to what is being said,
3. care not to interrupt,
4. use of open-ended questions,
5. sensitivity to the emotions being expressed, and
6. ability to reflect back to the other party the substance and feelings being expressed.
The power of empathic listening in volatile settings is reflected in Madelyn Burley-Allen’s description of the skilled listener. “When you listen well,” Burley-Allen says, “you:
1. acknowledge the speaker,
2. increase the speaker’s self-esteem and confidence,
3. tell the speaker, “You are important” and “I am not judging you,”
4. gain the speaker’s cooperation,
5. reduce stress and tension,
6. build teamwork,
7. gain trust,
8. elicit openness,
9. gain a sharing of ideas and thoughts, and
10. obtain more valid information about the speakers and the subject.”5
To obtain these results, Burly-Allen says, a skilled listener:
1. “takes information from others while remaining non-judgmental and empathic,
2. acknowledges the speaker in a way that invites the communication to continue, and
3. provides a limited but encouraging response, carrying the speaker’s idea one step forward.”
Empathic Listening in Mediation
Before a mediator can expect to obtain clear and accurate information about the conflict from a party who is emotionally distraught, it is necessary to enable that party to engage in a cathartic process, according to Lyman S. Steil,6 a former president of the American Listening Association. He defines catharsis as “the process of releasing emotion, the ventilation of feelings, the sharing of problems or frustrations with an empathic listener. Catharsis,” he continues, “basically requires an understanding listener who is observant to the cathartic need cues and clues. People who need catharsis will often give verbal and non-verbal cues, and good listeners will be sensitive enough to recognize them. Cathartic fulfillment is necessary for maximized success” at all other levels of communication.
“Cathartic communication,” Steil continues, “requires caring, concerned, risk-taking and non-judgmental listening. Truly empathic people suspend evaluation and criticism when they listen to others. Here the challenge is to enter into the private world of the speaker, to understand without judging actions or feelings.”
Providing empathic responses to two or more parties to the same conflict should not present a problem for a mediator who follows the basic principles of active listening. The mediator demonstrates objectivity and fairness by remaining non-judgmental throughout the negotiation, giving the parties equal time and attention and as much time as each needs to express themselves. Parties to volatile conflicts often feel that nobody on the other side is interested in what they have to say. The parties often have been talking at each other and past each other, but not with each other. Neither believes that their message has been listened to or understood. Nor do they feel respected. Locked into positions that they know the other will not accept, the parties tend to be close-minded, distrustful of each other, and often angry, frustrated, discouraged, or hurt. When the mediator comes onto the scene, he or she continuously models good conflict-management behaviors, trying to create an environment where the parties in conflict will begin to listen to each other with clear heads. For many disputants, this may be the first time they have had an opportunity to fully present their story. During this process, the parties may hear things that they have not heard before, things that broaden their understanding of how the other party perceives the problem. This can open minds and create a receptivity to new ideas that might lead to a settlement.7 In creating a trusting environment, it is the mediator’s hope that some strands of trust will begin to connect the parties and replace the negative emotions that they brought to the table.
Mediator Nancy Ferrell, who formerly responded to volatile community race-related conflicts for the Dallas Office of the U.S. Community Relations Service, questions whether mediation can work if some measure of empathy is not developed between the parties. She describes a multi-issue case involving black students and members of a white fraternity that held an annual “black-face” party at a university in Oklahoma. At the outset, the student president of the fraternity was convinced that the annual tradition was harmless and inoffensive. It wasn’t until the mediator created an opportunity for him to listen to the aggrieved parties at the table that he realized the extraordinary impact his fraternity’s antics had on black students. Once he recognized the problem, a solution to that part of the conflict was only a step away.
Ferrell seeks clues that the parties will respond to each other with some measure of empathy before bringing them to the table. Speaking of conflicts between parties who had a continuing relationship, she said, “One of my decisions about whether they were ready to meet at the table was whether or not I could get any glimmer of empathy from all sides. … If I couldn’t get some awareness of sensitivity to the other party’s position, I was reluctant to go to the table. … If you can’t create empathy, you can’t have a relationship. Without that, mediation is not going to work.”8
George Williams, who was a volunteer mediator at Chicago ‘s Center for Conflict Resolution after he retired as president of American University, recalled an incident in an entirely different type of dispute in the mid-1980s. The conflict was between a trade school and a student who had been expelled for what appeared to him to be a minor infraction of the rules, shortly after paying his full tuition. After losing his internal appeal, he considered a lawsuit, but chose mediation. The young man fared no better at mediation, yet later profusely thanked Williams for being “the first person who listened to what I had to say.”
Listening: A Learnable Skill
As many mediators, including myself, have come to understand, listening is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, it is not typically taught along with other communication skills at home or in school. I spend more time listening than using any other form of communication, yet as a youngster I was never taught the skill. I spent long hours learning to read and write and even had classroom training in public speaking, but I never had a lesson in listening or thought of listening as a learnable skill until I entered the world of mediation as an adult. While some may have had better experiences during their formative years, for many listening is often treated the same as “hearing.” We do not ordinarily receive instruction in using our other senses — smell, sight, touch and taste — so why give lessons in hearing (sound)? A message that listening was an important skill to learn would have fallen on deaf ears when I was a child. Perhaps now that peer mediation is being taught in many classrooms across the nation, when children are taught to “Listen to your elders,” they also will be taught by elders who model good listening skills.
Guidelines for Empathic Listening
Madelyn Burley-Allen offers these guidelines for empathic listening:
1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior.
2. Be a sounding board — allow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical manner.
3. Don’t ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are “grilling” the speaker.
4. Act like a mirror — reflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling.
5. Don’t discount the speaker’s feelings by using stock phrases like “It’s not that bad,” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
6. Don’t let the speaker “hook” you. This can happen if you get angry or upset, allow yourself to get involved in an argument, or pass judgment on the other person.
7. Indicate you are listening by
• Providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., “Uh-huh,” “I see.”
• Giving nonverbal acknowledgements, e.g., head nodding, facial expressions matching the speaker, open and relaxed body expression, eye contact.
• Invitations to say more, e.g., “Tell me about it,” “I’d like to hear about that.”
8. Follow good listening “ground rules:”
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t change the subject or move in a new direction.
• Don’t rehearse in your own head.
• Don’t interrogate.
• Don’t teach.
• Don’t give advice.
• Do reflect back to the speaker what you understand and how you think the speaker feels.9
The ability to listen with empathy may be the most important attribute of interveners who succeed in gaining the trust and cooperation of parties to intractable conflicts and other disputes with high emotional content. Among its other advantages, as Burley-Allen points out, empathic listening has empowering qualities. Providing an opportunity for people to talk through their problem may clarify their thinking as well as provide a necessary emotional release. Thomas Gordon agrees that active listening facilitates problem-solving and, like Burley-Allen’s primer on listening,10 Gordon’s “Leadership Effectiveness Training” provides numerous exercises and suggestions for those seeking to strengthen their listening skills.