Several weeks ago, The New York Times published an article about one of my favorite topics: Active Listening. Entitled “Practice Better Listening” by Kate Murphy,(Sunday, May  17, 2020, At Home section)  the author notes that with life moving at a much slower pace these days, we have the opportunity and time to begin to really listen to others. In short, to actively listen to family and friends.

Ms. Murphy makes the important point that active listening is more than just letting the other person talk. It requires patience, sensitivity and being non-judgmental:

For anyone to want to tell you anything, you have to not only extend the invitation, but also respond in a thoughtful, feeling way. Regrettably, most people aren’t very good at this. Graham Bodie, a professor of integrated marketing and communication at the University of Mississippi, has studied listening for almost 20 years, and his data suggests listeners’ responses are emotionally attuned to what speakers say less than 5 percent of the time. (Id.)

This does not mean that a listener’s response must be deeply emotional. (Id.) The response can be short and sweet or even just silence. Sometimes just being there and listening is all that is wanted. (Think about the person who just wants to vent; she is not looking for answer or for you to solve her problem, but just to state what is troubling her!)

Unfortunately, most people do not actively listen. Rather, when given the opportunity, they respond to the speaker by shifting the conversation to themselves or give advice on how to resolve the issue. Or, they may change the topic entirely because they want to avoid the emotionally charged subject under discussion. Many people believe if they listen to the speaker, they will somehow be held accountable for it. They do not realize that the speaker is not asking for a solution, “They just want recognition, understanding and above all, acceptance.” (Id.)

So, how does one prompt a speaker to open and say what is really on her mind: ask about “third things”. The term was created by Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and author and “…refers to things external to the two people talking, which can serve as springboards for disclosure. …. [P]eople tend to be more comfortable backing into disclosure.” (Id.)

Thus, to gain the trust and acceptance of the other person, ask about her favorite music, books, artwork, food, movies, sports, any pets, any vacations or trips taken, likes or dislikes on any subject or other “small talk” topic. And in doing so, do not challenge the speaker. Her beliefs are not going to change. As social psychologist Robert Zajonc noted, “’We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.’”

As every mediator knows, one must first build trust and rapport with the other person before she will “open up” and discuss the issue bothering her. And active listening on “third things” provides the means to build that trust and rapport. And… responding by silence sometimes shows more empathy than words can ever express.

…. Just something to think about!

During these unusual times,  I am conducting mediations by video conference and telephone.


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