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ACTIVE LISTENING FOR MEDIATORS

I.  PAYING ATTENTION TO THE SPEAKER ("ATTENDING")

1.  Look at the speaker. Keep the other persons in view so you can observe their reactions, but generally maintain eye contact with the speaker.

2.  Show that you're interested in what he/she is saying. Encourage by unobtrusive use of "yes," "I see," "um hum." Use positive body cues at appropriate points -- nods, smiles, note-taking, furrowed brow, etc.

3.  Most of the time, lean slightly toward the speaker. Keep an open, relaxed posture. Keep your physical movement to a minimum.

4.  Engage the speaker by looking for opportunities to subtly mirror his/her cues. Do not mimic, but do look for ways to be CONGRUENT. For example, if he/she speaks slowly, match his/her cadence.

5.  Draw the speaker out. Say something like, "I'd like to hear a little more about [subject]."

6.  Try to listen for what is NOT being said -- what's missing that you might expect to hear in the circumstances?

7.  Observe HOW things are said -- the emotions and attitudes behind the words may be more important than what is actually said. Look beyond the mere words the speaker uses -- remember that much information is displayed in voice intonation and body language.

8.  Say little yourself! You can't listen while you're talking.

9.  Show that you're listening and interested by asking QUESTIONS and FEEDING BACK, REFRAMING and SUMMARIZING. However, particularly in early stages, be careful not to interrupt the speaker's flow.  

II. ASKING QUESTIONS

1.  Questions serve three basic purposes:

    to show you're listening (especially in the early, trust-building stage);
    to gather and organize information (particularly in the problem-solving stage); and
    to express in question form what otherwise might be an academic statement -- for example, to test reality
         (most often in problem-solving and closure stages).

2.  Generally, questions should be open-ended, not closed-ended. Closed-ended questions can be answered "yes" or "no," or with a specific answer like "two" or "January." They may encourage the answerer to stop talking. Open-ended questions cannot be answered so simply, and encourage the speaker to talk and explain in complete sentences. Open-ended questions are good because they invite a person to open up and tell his/her story. Examples of open-ended questions: "Tell me more about [subject]," "what happened next," "how did you feel when that happened," "what would you like to see as an outcome." Use close-ended questions exceptionally -- only to increase control over the flow of information or to confirm certain important facts.  

III. FEEDING BACK, REFRAMING, AND SUMMARIZING

1.  When the speaker pauses, there's an opportunity to confirm that you've been listening and that you understand by FEEDING BACK what you've heard/observed to the speaker. It also is a way to check that your perception of what you think you heard/observed is accurate, as well as a way to validate for the speaker what he/she is feeling.

2.  To feedback, repeat or paraphrase what the speaker has said (or displayed as unspoken feelings). Examples: "so, when that incident happened, you felt like . . .", "it sounds like an important issue for you is how to deal with . . .", "what I think I'm hearing is that you really need to. . . .", "I can see that you have strong feelings about that." Pause expectantly to let the speaker react. Common signs that you've done it right: the speaker will nod vigorously and/or respond, "yes, and . . . ."

3.  Sometimes, repeating the last couple of words of a speaker will encourage him/her to go on, but you generally do not want to repeat verbatim what the speaker said -- you may sound like a mimic! Paraphrase instead. However, DO be conscious of particular words that seem important to the speaker and use them, if appropriate, in your paraphrasing.

4.  REFRAMING is a special way of feeding back, and is one of the Mediator's most important tools. It is restating what a party has said to capture the essence, remove negative overtones, and move the process forward. Reframing also is a way to translate a positional statement into a statement of interests or needs. Example: a separated spouse says angrily, "He's so irresponsible that I never can depend on him to pick our child up on schedule." Simple feedback might be, "so it really bothers you if he isn't on time to pick up Johnny" -- while a reframed response might be, "so a regular schedule is important for you and Johnny." Either response may be appropriate, and the difference is subtle; the first might be better at an early point in trust-building, while the second might be better later, during problem-solving.

5.  Summaries are part of most feedback, but sometimes you want to focus particularly on a summary. At major transitions, such as after one Party has told his/her story and before you turn to the other Party, do an overall summary of major points, and ask for confirmation.

6.  Generally use neutral language. Example: one Party says the other was "hysterical." In feeding back, you might say the Party was "crying." A "liar" becomes a person who "disagreed" or "sees differently." Be careful not to get so pretentious that the Party feels you've misrepresented their point of view. 

IV. MANAGING THE FLOW OF COMMUNICATION

1.  Stick to the speaker's subject. You may want to go to something else, but give the speaker time to finish.

2.  Don't be too quick to try to move on when the speaker repeats things. Remember, repetition may indicate: (a) that the subject is very important to the speaker, and (b) that the speaker needs to feel that you've really heard him/her on the subject. This is a cue that you need to feedback what the speaker is saying.

3.  If repetition does go on too long you can try saying something like, "Well, it's clear to me that [subject] is very important to you. Is there anything else that's also important for us to understand?"

4.  Be comfortable with silence. Usually, one of the Parties will speak up soon enough. Use silent cues -- pauses, turning to another Party expectantly. 
 

Last Updated June 16, 1998.

Reviewed/Updated: March 21, 2004