Listen actively! My mediation training has inadvertently improved my relationships with friends and family. I can’t mediate between friends or family as without impartiality it’s hopeless! However, it has shown me that active listening is far more powerful than any other social skill. It has an astonishing effect on people, simply because they’re not used to feeling understood.
My Role Taught Me To
Before I trained as a mediator I thought I was a good listener. However, research shows most people are not good listeners and actually disregard between 75% – 90% of what has been said to them.  A good mediator must listen ‘actively’. This means concentrating fully on what the speaker says, including studying their body language and their tone, asking questions to clarify and gain a complete understanding. The mediator will often summarise what has been said to show the speaker they have heard and check they’ve got it right. The speaker may correct them if they have misunderstood – and it provides the speaker an opportunity to hear and reflect on what they have said. This makes the client really feel heard and understood by the mediator, which builds trust and rapport between them. Mostly people are too busy formulating their response to listen fully. It’s often why couples argue; ‘You aren’t really listening to me, you didn’t hear what I said – and you didn’t care what I said or felt’.
I haven’t always listened well
I am a good active listener in my role as a mediator, it’s integral to the work and a professional skill. However, with friends and family I still don’t always listen actively enough. Almost all of us could improve our relationships and communication if we understood how to listen actively to friends and family.
Sometimes emotions can get in the way of me listening properly. I may have been too angry, excited, frustrated or too rushed to listen actively. Most of us want to help friends and family. When they are suffering we want to ease their pain. Of course I have listened to their concerns and fears – but I simply didn’t comprehend just how powerful and healing it can be to just feel heard. I didn’t understand that listening was enough – I wanted to give them more. When someone shares their innermost feelings with you, it is of course both a privilege and a responsibility. In the past I tried to find a way to fix their problems or I would share my own problems to try and empathise. As an experienced mediator I now understand that people need to feel heard more than anything else. If someone has suffered a bereavement you can’t speed up their healing process and take their pain away. When they share their grief with you they need to know that you understand what they are going through and that you empathise with them. Acknowledging how they feel helps them to feel supported and to know that they aren’t alone.
A client who felt helpless
A father told me how helpless he felt. He had separated years ago from his daughter’s mother who had mental health issues. Sometimes she wouldn’t take her medication and her behaviour would become erratic. She would isolate herself and her teenage daughter from people who genuinely cared and could help them. This father applied for residence, but his daughter wanted to stay with her mother and told the court this. This father really wanted to help his daughter. He felt hopeless and that there was nothing he could do to help his daughter unless she lived with him – because he was trying to fix the problems. He described conversations he had had with her and it was apparent to me that he hadn’t actively listened to her.  Unintentionally he had not been as supportive as he could have been. He was so preoccupied with trying to help, he couldn’t see she just wanted to confide in him and to feel he heard her and supported her. He had been shocked during the residence proceedings to find out that she didn’t want to live with him. He had assumed so much without asking his daughter what she wanted. She was a teenager and the court had respected her wish to stay with her mother. He could best support her by letting her know he was always there for her and that he would always listen to her. If she wanted more help she could tell him.
In the past he had been highly critical of his daughter’s mother to her. We discussed how that could have a negative impact on his relationship with his daughter. He confirmed it already had – she had stopped discussing her mother with him as she was protective of her. He needed to stop judging and fixing and just be there to listen. Listening is what truly connects us. Talking is a repetition of what we already know – however when we listen we may learn something new. We have two ears and one mouth – if we could try to listen twice as much as we speak, the world would be a better place.
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