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.

ENDNOTES

[1] Richard Salem, "Community Dispute Resolution Through Outside Intervention," Peace & Change Journal VIII, no. 2/3 (1982)

[2] William Simkin, Mediation and the Dynamics of Collective Bargaining (BNA Books, 1971)

[3] Ibid.

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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.