• Philip Reich


One of our society’s most underutilized skills is listening. Technology’s enhancements have increased our ability to communicate, or have they? Effective communication involves both speaking (writing, drawing, photographs, graphics, etc.) and listening (understanding). While new technologies (including social media) offer many new and stimulating ways to express ourselves, have they really increased our listening skills?

Effective communication is the key to productive negotiations, and thus plays a starring role in successful mediations. So, communication skills (including listening) are important for a mediator and the parties to mediation.

Listening is one of the primary means of reaching the best (most wise) outcome in negotiations.

Listening for the interests that must be met in order for the other side to agree. Listening to what is important and not so important to them. Listening for opportunities to reach a win-win result, or a creative resolution that goes beyond the obvious. Listening for motivating factors. Listening for who is calling the shots and what their interests may be. A good negotiator is a good listener.

While mediation provides scenarios with increased opportunities for dispute resolution, it can hamper the ability to listen to the other side.

As we spend most of our time at mediation these days in caucuses, our ability to engage with the other side–to listen to the other side–is hampered. Therefore, the mediator plays an important role in effectively communicating what you would see, hear, and understand in face-to-face interactions with the other side. An effective mediator must understand the importance of listening and must also be a good listener.

Listening can be done actively and passively.

Passive listening allows someone who is “on a roll” and effectively speaking to finish their thoughts and express their emotions and feelings. But all listening is not and should not be passive. Active listening can reinforce and clarify thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and can encourage further or additional discourse. Active listening involves many skills and techniques such as asking open-ended questions, mirroring, reframing, and affirmation. Questions produce more fertile ground for listening than pontificating. And using specific strategic active listening skills fertilize that plowed ground.

Many mediators, especially those who mediate a large number of similar cases, quickly quit listening. They believe that they know where a case will settle (or should settle) and become too passive or worse intentionally or unintentionally attempt to drive the negotiations to that point. Nothing is more frustrating for a negotiating party. If you believe this is happening in your mediation, say something. Ask questions. Force the mediator to work for you and engage in the process. If the mediator has an opinion, ask for it. And then ask why. The exchange could prove very helpful.