Listening is a very simple act. It’s a subtle act. It is something that we do naturally with the people we love, and when things are going smoothly. Yet one of the most powerful statements that we can ever make is to say honestly, “I hear you. I recognize what you’re going through.”
What is listening? Being open to hearing not only the words the speaker is saying, but also to her tone of voice, to read her body language, and to be open to the emotions she is displaying. Sometimes it means being aware of what she is NOT saying. It can mean listening to the particular choice of words – how general are they? How specific? How much is this person answering a question or how much is she avoiding answering?
Something happens when we are in conflict. We feel misunderstood, and as a result, we often feel hurt, disappointed, angry, resentful, betrayed or frustrated — or some combination of all of the above. Our guards naturally go up, and it is almost like a door slams shut.
We are so aware of our own reaction that it becomes very difficult to listen. We often think we know what the other person is saying, and that we have heard it a thousand times before, and we react to what we assume they mean. At the same time, we are trying to get our own point across, and don’t understand why the other person can’t hear us.
One of the challenges and the opportunities in working with divorcing couples is that they know each other intimately, and have often been together – and perhaps in conflict – for a very long time. It can be especially frustrating because the very person who was once easy to listen to now seems to be speaking another language, and the message gets lost in translation. These conflicts are extremely personal and often are over the things that people care most deeply about — especially when there are children involved. What is more personal than your home life?
I am not in conflict with my clients, which makes it easier for me to give each one the respect and attention they deserve. Although we may not be fully aware of it, we are all looking for recognition that we are not alone. We all want and need to be understood.
One of the most powerful things that I do as a mediator is to tell each participant: “I will listen closely, I will hear you.” This sends the message that each person’s thoughts and feelings are worthy of being heard, that their perspective is valid, that their experience of a situation is real. It helps them relax a bit so they can be more open to hearing the other person. Sometimes it seems as though I can feel the air become a little more open, a little clearer.
Dr. Tammy Lenski, author and mediation trainer, calls the mediation room “a judgment free zone.”[*] I certainly try to make it so.
Who do you hear?