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UMass Amherst EDUC 210 - Empathetic Listening

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Empathic ListeningBy Richard Salem The Benefits of Empathic ListeningEmpathic listening (also called active listening or reflectivelistening) is a way of listening and responding to another personthat improves mutual understanding and trust. It is an essential skill for third parties and disputants alike, as it enables thelistener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker's message,and then provide an appropriate response. The response is anintegral part of the listening process and can be critical to thesuccess of a negotiation or mediation. Among its benefits,empathic listening1. Builds trust and respect,2. enables the disputants to release their emotions,3. reduces tensions,4. encourages the surfacing of information, and5. creates a safe environment that is conducive tocollaborative problem solving.Though useful for everyone involved in a conflict, the ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets the mediator apart from others involved in the conflict.Even when the conflict is not resolved during mediation, the listening process can have a profound impact on the parties. Jonathon Chace, associate director of the U.S. Community Relations Service, recalls a highly charged community race-related conflict he responded to morethan 30 years ago when he was a mediator in the agency's Mid-Atlantic office. It involved the construction of a highway that would physically divide a community centered around a public housing project. After weeks of protest activity, the parties agreed to mediation. In the end, the public officials prevailed and the aggrieved community got little relief. When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator's hand and thanked him for being "different from the others.""How was I different?" Chace asked. "You listened," was the reply. "You were the only one who cared about what we were saying."[1]William Simkin, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and one of the first practitioners to write in depth about the mediation process, noted in 1971 that "understanding has limited utility unless the mediator can somehow convey to the parties the factthat [the mediator] knows the essence of the problem. At that point," he said, "and only then, can (the mediator) expect to be accorded confidence and respect."[2]Simkin was writing about more than the need to understand and project an understanding of the facts. Understanding "is not confined to bare facts," he said. "Quite frequently the strong "When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator's hand and thanked him for being 'different from the others.' 'How was I different?' Chace asked. 'You listened,' was the reply. 'You were the only one who cared about what we were saying.'"[1]emotional background of an issue and the personalities involvedmay be more significant than the facts." He suggested thatmediators apply "sympathetic understanding,"[3] which inreality is empathic listening.How to Listen with EmpathyEmpathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality ofanother person in order to better understand that person'semotions or feelings. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know, "I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you." The listener unmistakably conveys this message through words and non-verbal behaviors, including body language. In so doing, the listener encourages the speaker to fully express herself or himself free of interruption, criticism or being told what to do. It is neither advisable nor necessary for a mediator to agree with the speaker, even when asked to do so. It is usually sufficient to let the speaker know, "I understand you and I am interested in being a resource to help you resolve this problem."While this article focuses on mediation, it should be apparent that empathic listening is a core skill that will strengthen the interpersonal effectiveness of individuals in many aspects of their professional and personal lives.[4] Parties to unassisted negotiations -- those that do not involve a mediator -- can often function as their own mediator and increase their negotiating effectiveness through the use of empathy. Through the use of skilled listening these "mediational negotiators" can control the negotiation by their:1. willingness to let the other parties dominate the discussion,2. attentiveness to what is being said,3. care not to interrupt,4. use of open-ended questions,5. sensitivity to the emotions being expressed, and6. ability to reflect back to the other party the substance and feelings being expressed.The power of empathic listening in volatile settings is reflected in Madelyn Burley-Allen's description of the skilled listener. "When you listen well," Burley-Allen says, "you:1. acknowledge the speaker,2. increase the speaker's self-esteem and confidence,3. tell the speaker, "You are important" and "I am not judging you,"4. gain the speaker's cooperation,5. reduce stress and tension,6. build teamwork,7. gain trust,8. elicit openness,9. gain a sharing of ideas and thoughts, and10. obtain more valid information about the speakers and the subject."[5]Additional insights intoempathic listening areoffered by BeyondIntractability projectparticipants.To obtain these results, Burly-Allen says, a skilled listener:1. "takes information from others while remaining non-judgmental and empathic,2. acknowledges the speaker in a way that invites the communication to continue, and3. provides a limited but encouraging response, carrying the speaker's idea one step forward."Empathic Listening in MediationBefore a mediator can expect to obtain clear and accurate information about the conflict from a party who is emotionally distraught, it is necessary to enable that party to engage in a cathartic process, according to Lyman S. Steil,[6] a former president of the American Listening Association. He defines catharsis as "the process of releasing emotion, the ventilation of feelings,the sharing of problems or frustrations with an empathic listener. Catharsis," he continues, "basically requires an understanding listener who is observant to the cathartic need cues and clues. People who need catharsis will often give verbal and non-verbal cues, and good listeners will be sensitive enough to recognize them. Cathartic


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