My husband recently went to his GP at my request. “My wife says I’m going deaf”, he told the doctor “Ah, yes,” said the GP, “I hear that a lot.”
It may be an inevitable consequence of being in a long term relationship that, eventually – and increasingly – we filter out the phrases and words we have heard from our partners and friends time and time again, or the rant about the news or daily life.
But when we are in a situation where it really matters what is said, how good are we at really listening to what the other participants in the discussion have to say?
As a mediator, I have been trained as to the importance of listening and picking up on cues, but it is important to remember that those attending mediation may well be feeling stressed, worried and anxious to have their say. Emotions may be running high; there may be assumptions on each side of a dispute as to what the other’s position will be and a reluctance to hear them expand on their points of view. Mistrust of each other’s motives can also lead to people inwardly misinterpreting or even distorting what has been said.
A couple of years ago, as part of a pilot scheme involving separated parents, an exercise for active listening was devised by CAFCASS, whereby the mediator asked one participant to describe, in detail, their day up to the point of the meeting, taking around five minutes to describe, for example, what time they had woken up, what they had had for breakfast, the route they had taken to the mediation venue; the other participant had to listen – actively and carefully – and then relay that information back as accurately as possible. Following this, the same exercise was conducted by the other participant.
Now, these were usually couples either in or at the verge of court proceedings; there was often a considerable level of acrimony between them and the only thing they were united in was an agreement that attendance at mediation was going to be pointless. They would initially be resistant to the exercise but most complied with the request to give it a try.
The main points that emerged from this exercise were firstly, how much concentration and active effort it takes to actually listen fully to another’s account and then recount it, secondly, it was a great ice breaker as they usually reacted to each other more good naturedly than before at the conclusion of it and thirdly, they usually often each expressed a sense of achievement at completing the task successfully, which helped to bind them together with a sense of common purpose.
I’m not suggesting that this would be an appropriate exercise at the commencement of every mediation, but it does highlight the importance of asking participants to focus their minds and open their ears to listen carefully, fully and actively to what is being said. This reminds me, as a mediator, that I need to guard against complacency and thinking I have heard these arguments many times before. I too need to constantly hone my listening skills to ensure effective re-framing and reflection during the mediation process.