What Makes a Good Listener?
Listening is essential to good communication. Listening is even more essential to the mediation process. Parties should listen to one another. They might learn something new; or hear something said in a new way that changes their perception of the dispute. Advocates should listen to one another. Not only is this a matter of mutual respect, but listening will lead to better understanding the other side's points. With a better understanding, opposing counsel is better prepared to meet or neutralize the arguments. Mediators should listen to parties and advocates. How else can a mediator help the parties resolve their dispute; how else can a mediator recognize the underlying needs and interests driving the dispute? And, from time to time, parties and advocates should listen to the mediator, as well. Several examples come to mind: when the mediator is conveying an offer, exchanging material information, explaining someone's perspective or exploring risk. Nonetheless, despite the obvious value and advantages to listening, few of us are as good at it as we should be or think we are.
Instead, we often prefer to listen to the voices inside our own heads, or get our own points out before hearing from anyone else, or we assume we know what the other person is going to say, or we are formulating a clever retort, etc.
What makes a good listener? What are the qualities of a good listener? How can we do a better job of listening? Aristotle taught us that "wisdom is the result of a lifetime of listening when we would rather have been talking." Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” When I plug “what makes a good listener” into Google, there are 5, 500,000 results. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what makes a good listener. Here are mine:
- Be present, listening to the speaker, not a voice in your head preparing your response
- Make eye contact - don't look around the room searching for a better conversation
- Listen to the words spoken together with any unspoken messages, as well
- Be attentive - body language and facial expressions are sending messages, too
- Don’t assume you know what the party is going to say - you may be surprised
- If you can reframe what was said in your own words, you’ve fully understood
- Don’t interrupt
- Ask questions - after the speaker completes a thought
- Don’t change the subject
- Don’t “one up” the speaker
- Remember what you were told - retaining what you learned demonstrates it was important to you
- Keep what is said confidential
- Be empathetic/sympathetic
- Give feedback with your face as well as your words, nodding and shaking your head
- Be ready to acknowledge a good point made by the speaker
We can all be better listeners. Listening is a skill. Like all skills, we get better with practice.