Article originally printed here on Huffington Post.
I am often asked this question: how come that guerrilla fighters, paramilitary leaders and gang members sit down with you and confess to you? More often than not, I respond with a smile and a gentle shrug of the shoulders, but over the past few weeks, as I was designing a new training in effective communication, I pondered that question and wondered about the listening skills I honed in 20-plus years of conflict resolution work in hot spots across the world. In fact, mindful and empathic listening may engender a transformative experience and is characteristic of high performance in leadership. The good news is that such listening skills can be learned.
As an example, let me tell you the story of my encounter with commander Mauricio, a Colombian paramilitary leader responsible for sawing terror in Medellin and the surrounding region through torture, disappearances, forced displacement, massacres and selective killings. I met him in late August 2003 while doing fieldwork on political violence in Colombia. A journalist had arranged for us a clandestine meeting near a village lost in the mountains.
On my way to the appointment, as I was driving along an impervious road, I thought about the testimonies of Mauricio’s victims that I had recorded over the previous weeks. I recalled the testimony of miss Ana, who had witnessed the killing of her husband at the hand of the paramilitaries. To escape the horror, she displaced with her two daughters to Medellin, where she had to reinvent her life from scratch. It had been difficult to listen to her painful tale. I was appalled and disgusted.
An athletic man in his late thirties, commander Mauricio met me flanked by a German shepherd and a few heavily armed bodyguards, all dressed in military fatigue with their faces masked. I could not gauge his gaze hidden behind polarized mirror sunglasses, as we shook hands. As I climbed on the front seat of his land rover, he placed his semi-automatic rifle between my legs, and I felt its cold and heavy metal pressing against my left thigh.
As we were headed towards a safe location for the interview, my mind fell hostage of fear and anxiety, hijacked by nightmarish fantasies. "What if I end up tortured and killed?" I asked myself despite Mauricio’s courteous manners. To be hostage of negative emotions jeopardized the opportunity to have an insightful conversation with him.
To free myself from the anxiety and fear that had assailed me, I had to bring my mind to stillness. If I wanted to bond with commandant Mauricio, I had to achieve silence within me. A calm and silent mind was necessary to create a space that allowed for an authentic encounter between the two of us. I had to silence my anxieties and nightmarish fantasies as well as the memories of the victims’ tales, at least for the time being. I had to achieve silence in order to undo the image I had created for myself of Mauricio as an enemy and a monstrous Bluebeard. One has to bring the mind to stillness to be open to empathic and active listening, to have an experience of authentic and effective communication.
I thus brought awareness to everything that was surrounding me in that present moment. I carefully observed the beautiful nature, the gentle lines of the hills, the woods’ emerald shade of green caressed by the rays of a warm sun, and the intensity of a blue and clear sky. I focused on what Mauricio was uttering, at the tone of his voice, at the details of the military fatigue he wore. When we sat down, as he removed his polarized sunglasses, I met his gaze, which to my astonishment was not that of a Bluebeard, but rather that of a fellow human being. I stroke the back of the German shepherd lying between the two of us. The anxiety, the nightmarish fantasies, the memories were all gone. My mind was now free to listen and to take in the experience of that unlikely encounter.
Over the next few hours, I paid close attention to Mauricio’s account and every time my mind drifted away I brought it back to our conversation, paying close attention to what was uttered while at once checking how my body was feeling and reacting to what I was listening. Did I feel comfortable? Were the muscles of my body tense or relaxed? As my mind quieted and my awareness heightened, I was able to increasingly bond with Mauricio. We had an interesting and insightful conversation, a meaningful encounter.
It turned out to be also a somehow transformative encounter for commander Mauricio. After our clandestine meeting, we continued our conversation by email. During a very difficult time of his life, since he was fleeing from rivals who wanted him dead, Mauricio, acting on my suggestion, begun to write his life history. "To share with you my story helps me to reflect about my experience," he confessed in an email. Our communication had become for him a cathartic experience and he continued writing to me until a hit man eventually killed him. "Thanks to your relationship with him, he was able to reevaluate his life. It prepared him for death," Mauricio’s brother told me a few years later, when I had a chance to meet him. One can never predict what the impact of empathic and mindful listening might be.
Unfortunately we live in a society that does not appreciate the importance of listening. Research shows that very few leaders are good at empathic listening. In his most recent book Focus, Daniel Goleman, the best-selling author that popularized emotional intelligence, observed that poor listening has become endemic while a variety of listening skills and habits underpins high performance among managers and leaders.
Mindful and empathic listening can be learned. To master these skills one can take advantage of every day interactions. As my experience with paramilitary commander Mauricio shows, focus, awareness and presence quite your mind when one is hostage of negative emotions. A still mind allows to be open to listening and to bond with the other for a meaningful experience of effective communication.
As we model effective communication and emotional intelligence skills that mediators and conflict resolution experts employ to resolve tough problems, we can experience a qualitative change in our relationships and maximize our life performance.