Can You Hear Me Now?

May 10, 2018By Bill RatliffUncategorized

The importance of listening during mediations.

You remember the guy who repeatedly asked the headline’s question in the Verizon ad campaign, years ago? Whether or not you liked it, the fact that Sprint hired the guy should tell you how effective that campaign was. What’s more, seeing him again on TV got me thinking about how important listening, really listening, is during mediation.

When you think about it, listening is at the heart of what good attorneys do during mediations. It’s not just how they gain the information they need to know (both from their own clients and opposing counsel & clients) in order to better shape their own arguments. Attentive listening encourages more open disclosure — and a willingness to continue sharing information. Listening meets a fundamental human need: The need to be heard.

My wife often says I’m not a good listener. I know why.

A couple of years ago, I read an article by Susan Ingram — a mediator in New York — in which she noted that the Chinese character for Listening is comprised of five symbols which, separately, represent the eyes, the ears, the mind, the heart, and undivided attention. That’s a lot of meaning in a single word, so let’s look at each one individually.

Our ears, of course, are most obviously related to listening. It’s hard to listen to what’s being said if you can’t hear it. But in mediation, our eyes can be just as important as our ears in determining what’s really being said. In a widely-cited study of subjects reacting to positive and negative emotions, UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian famously concluded that 93% of communication was conveyed non-verbally — through tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.

Granted, Mehrabian’s study was conducted in a highly controlled environment, and his numbers far overstate the significance of non-verbal communication in mediations. But as I pointed out in an earlier post, good attorneys can spot (in witnesses, clients and opposing counsel) the non-verbal cues that poker players call “Tells” — and they use them to their advantage in negotiations.

Pay attention. Close attention.

To really hear someone, we need to have our minds engaged — making an effort to keep our minds open, and be actively curious about what’s being said. We need to focus fully on the conversation by giving speakers our undivided, undistracted attention — listening attentively to everything that’s being said; even when a speaker is long-winded, or venturing into irrelevant topics. After all, you never know when a witness might drop a proverbial bomb during his or her testimony — which is why you need to be engaged, and ready to react at all times.

Remember, conversations don’t occur in a vacuum.

Most of our interactions with others stimulate some kind of feelings or emotions. Listening to a client with your heart stirs empathy — which you can then use, in your own words and actions, to stir empathy in others (including opposing parties).

I respect the wisdom of the Chinese linguists who identified the five components of listening. Countless behavioral studies confirm it. As a mediator, my listening skills determine how well I serve the attorneys and clients who hire me.

I’ll also concede that my wife is correct in routinely claiming that I’m not listening to her. I know I should be a better listener at home — using those five components that I employ with such dedication at work.

What steps can you take be a better listener — and how can you use that skill to better serve your clients? Inside the office and out, people love good listeners for the simple reason (which bears repeating) that it meets one of our most fundamental needs: The need to be heard.