Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today

The “Active” In Active Listening!

by Phyllis Pollack
August 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

In its July 27, 2010 guest blog, Scientific American published an article by R. Douglas Fields entitled, “Of Two Minds: Listener brain patterns mirror those of the speaker.” In it, Mr. Fields discusses a study (published in the July 26, 2010 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) showing that simply by speech, a speaker “. . .can project her own brain activity onto another person” such that the neural activity of the listener will closely mirror that of the speaker. (Id.)

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, the researchers examined both the speaker’s and the listener’s brain activity patterns while they communicated with each other. What they found was that:

“. . . when two people communicate, neural activity over wide regions of their brains becomes almost synchronous, with the listener’s brain activity patterns mirroring those sweeping through the speaker’s brain, . . .with a short lag of about one second. If the listener, however, fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple.” (Id.)

The researchers found that “the better matched the listener’s brain patterns were with the speaker’s, the better the listener’s comprehension. . . .” (Id.) Thus, if a listener truly comprehends what the speaker is saying, her brain imaginary will mirror the speaker’s. If, on the other hand, the listener hasn’t a clue about what the speaker is saying, her brain imaginary will show that as well: there will be absolutely no mirroring.

The researchers also found that when a listener is fully comprehending what the speaker is saying, her own neural activity preceded that which was about to occur in the speaker’s brain. That is, she anticipated what the speaker would say next!

As explained by the lead investigator, Uri Hasson, “communication is a joint activity, by which two brains become coupled.” (Id.)

This research intrigues me because one of the basic concepts in mediation is “active listening” (which means to listen carefully to what the speaker is saying and how it is being said and then use various techniques such as paraphrasing or restating the speaker’s remarks to make sure the listener understands what is being said. It is a continuous and interactive process of listening and providing feedback.) This research confirms that there really is an “active” in active listening: when we truly listen to someone and comprehend what she says, our neural activity will closely mirror the speaker’s to the point that our own neural activity may well mirror what is about to occur next in the speaker’s brain. We can anticipate what the speaker will say next.

And, I have learned that mirroring or mimicking is one of those great tools that can lead to agreement. If one mirrors or mimics the body language of another, that other person will tend to become more receptive to you, albeit, subconsciously. That is, the more similar you are to someone, the more agreeable she will become. And the more agreeable a person is, the more likely a resolution will be reached.

So,. . . there really is something to “active” in active listening: it epitomizes a joint activity through which resolutions can be reached.

. . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

Email Author

Additional articles by Phyllis Pollack