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"[11] provides numerous exercises and suggestions for those seeking to strengthen their listening skills.


[9] Nancy Ferrell, Oral History, Civil Rights Mediation Project, 101-102, also available at

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Gordon, Leadership Effectiveness Training, (Bantam Books, 1977). See also, Thomas Gordon, Teacher Effectiveness Training(1974).

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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.