Many of us are experiencing the historic coronavirus-mandated “lockdown” in close, relentless companionship – of partners, children, or housemates. This presents an opportunity for closeness borne from the intensity of the experience, but also increases the chance of conflict from which it may be difficult to retreat. Our usual coping mechanisms - time alone or outside, exercise, fresh company – are hard to access, causing disagreements to loom larger. Whether about child or homecare responsibilities, prioritizing careers, “irritating” behaviour, the permutations for possible quarantine conflict are as varied as we are.
Mediators are trained to address conflict, and to help people move through it to resolution. One important tool that mediators use in managing conflict is active listening , the process by which a listener periodically summarizes what a speaker is saying.
Active listening, or “looping”, was a cornerstone of the Harvard commercial mediation course I took in 2017. I was skeptical as I reviewed the advance materials. Almost everyone has heard of active listening; it’s not exactly rocket science. Wouldn’t adults find it patronizing and obvious, particularly in the context of sophisticated disputes? In any case, I considered myself to be a pretty good listener already so I wasn’t sure the concept would add much to my repertoire.
Fast forward to the first morning of the Harvard course, as I partnered with another litigator to practice “looping”. Although I knew precisely what my partner was doing, I was shocked at how quickly I felt very understood, and how willing I suddenly was to share information I normally kept to myself.
So began my deep respect for active listening. On returning home I used my newfound approach in conversations with my litigation clients. Immediately I noticed a shift in our relationship. Even longstanding clients shared more, sometimes very personal, information with me about the interests and motivations behind their disputes. I was able to use this to better tailor litigation strategies to suit their particular concerns.
I also tested my new skills with our two sons, then ages 7 and 9, when they were in conflict with one another or me. While not infallible, it often worked like magic and quickly quelled their anger.
Since becoming a mediator, active listening has been an invaluable part of my toolkit. From shareholder to employment disputes, active listening focusses my attention, deepens my understanding of the conflict, the lawyers and their clients involved in it, and helps all of us to arrive at more satisfying resolutions. I was not surprised to recently learn that it’s a technique also used by hostage negotiators.
Active listening works for several reasons.
First, it forces the listener to slow down and really listen to the content of what someone is saying. So often when we purport to be ‘listening’, we are actually busy reacting: judging; feeling defensive; preparing a snappy reply; identifying a time when the “exact same thing happened” to us; or coming up with a solution. In order to reflect back what someone has just said we are forced to actually listen, not just when they start talking, but all the way until they are finished.
Second, because active listening makes the speaker feel more deeply understood, it is easier for them to become more open and trusting in the conversation. Knowing that they no longer need to advocate for their grievances, because that work is complete, the speaker may become more open to hearing another perspective. They may also share more privately held concerns which might be playing a part in the conflict and be relevant to finding satisfying solutions.