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."


[4] Books on effective listening cited in this paper primarily address the topic in one-on-one situations and use examples in both personal and professional settings. Three books by Thomas Gordon all use the same communication models in a variety of settings. They are Gordon'sLeadership Effectiveness Training, (Bantam Books, 1977), Teacher Effectiveness Training, (1974), and Parent Effectiveness Training.

[5] Madelyn Burley-Allen, Listening the Forgotten Skill, (John Wiley & sons, 1982). Burley-Allen is a former president of the American Listening Assn.

[6] Lyman K. Steil, "On Listening...and Not Listening," Executive Health, (newsletter, 1981). Dr. Steil is a former president of the American Listening Assn. See also, "Effective Listening," by Steil, Barker and Watson, McGraw Hill, 1983 and "Listening Leaders," Beaver Press, forthcoming, 2003.

[7] Labor mediator Walter Maggiolo wrote that the effective mediator performs the following four essential tasks: (1) Understand and appreciate "the problems confronting the parties;" (2) Impart to the parties "the fact that the mediator knows and appreciates their problems;" (3) create "doubts in the minds of the parties about the validity of the positions they have assumed with respect to the problems;" and (4) surface or suggest "alternative approaches which may facilitate agreement." W. Maggiolo, "Techniques of Mediation," 1985.

[8] Nancy Ferrell, Oral History, Civil Rights Mediation Project, available at http://www.civilrightsmediation.org/.

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By Richard Salem

Richard Salem has been active as a mediator, trainer and consultant in conflict management since 1968, when he was appointed Midwest Director of the U.S. Community Relations Service (CRS). Salem is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.