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Constructive Confrontation Initiative This Spring, please join us in an effort to reduce the destructiveness of today's bitter political confrontations.

New to the site? Check out our Quick Start Guide or Video

Constructive Confrontation Initiative

In early July, the Constructive Confrontation Initiative will be integrated into into ournew effort to better deal with the scale and complexity of intractable conflict--the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Project.

By Richard Salem

July 2003

The Benefits of Empathic Listening

Empathic listening (also called active listening or reflective listening) is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. It is an essentialskill for third parties and disputants alike, as it enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker's message, and then provide an appropriate response. The response is an integral part of the listening process and can be critical to the success of a negotiation or mediation. Among its benefits, empathic listening

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 more than 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."

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 fact that [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 emotional background of an issue and the personalities involved may be more significant than the facts." He suggested that mediators apply "sympathetic understanding,"[3] which in reality is empathic listening.

How to Listen with Empathy

Empathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality of another person in order to better understand that person's emotions 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:

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:

To obtain these results, Burly-Allen says, a skilled listener:

Empathic Listening in Mediation

Before 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 fulfillment is necessary for maximized success" at all other levels of communication.

"Cathartic communication," Steil continues, "requires caring, concerned, risk-taking and non-judgmental listening. Truly empathic people suspend evaluation and criticism when they listen to others. Here the challenge is to enter into the private world of the speaker, to understand without judging actions or feelings."

Providing empathic responses to two or more parties to the same conflict should not present a problem for a mediator who follows the basic principles of active listening. The mediator demonstrates objectivity and fairness by remaining non-judgmental throughout the negotiation, giving the parties equal time and attention and as much time as each needs to express themselves.

Parties to volatile conflicts often feel that nobody on the other side is interested in what they have to say. The parties often have been talking at each other and past each other, but not with each other. Neither believes that their message has been listened to or understood. Nor do they feel respected. Locked into positions that they know the other will not accept, the parties tend to be close-minded, distrustful of each other, and often angry , frustrated, discouraged, or hurt.

When the mediator comes onto the scene, he or she continuously models good conflict-management behaviors, trying to create an environment where the parties in conflict will begin to listen to each other with clear heads. For many disputants, this may be the first time they have had an opportunity to fully present their story. During this process, the parties may hear things that they have not heard before, things that broaden their understanding of how the other party perceives the problem. This can open minds and create a receptivity to new ideas that might lead to a settlement.[7] In creating a trusting environment, it is the mediator's hope that some strands of trust will begin to connect the parties and replace the negative emotions that they brought to the table.

Mediator Nancy Ferrell, who formerly responded to volatile community race-related conflicts for the Dallas Office of the U.S. Community Relations Service, questions whether mediation can work if some measure of empathy is not developed between the parties. She describes a multi-issue case involving black students and members of a white fraternity that held an annual "black-face" party at a university in Oklahoma. At the outset, the student president of the fraternity was convinced that the annual tradition was harmless and inoffensive. It wasn't until the mediator created an opportunity for him to listen to the aggrieved parties at the table that he realized the extraordinary impact his fraternity's antics had on black students. Once he recognized the problem, a solution to that part of the conflict was only a step away.

Ferrell seeks clues that the parties will respond to each other with some measure of empathy before bringing them to the table. Speaking of conflicts between parties who had a continuing relationship, she said, "One of my decisions about whether they were ready to meet at the table was whether or not I could get any glimmer of empathy from all sides. ... If I couldn't get some awareness of sensitivity to the other party's position, I was reluctant to go to the table. ... If you can't create empathy, you can't have a relationship. Without that, mediation is not going to work."[8]

George Williams, who was a volunteer mediator at Chicago 's Center for Conflict Resolution after he retired as president of American University, recalled an incident in an entirely different type of dispute in the mid-1980s. The conflict was between a trade school and a student who had been expelled for what appeared to him to be a minor infraction of the rules, shortly after paying his full tuition. After losing his internal appeal, he considered a lawsuit, but chose mediation. The young man fared no better at mediation, yet later profusely thanked Williams for being "the first person who listened to what I had to say."

Listening: A Learnable Skill

As many mediators, including myself, have come to understand, listening is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, it is not typically taught along with other communication skills at home or in school. I spend more time listening than using any other form of communication, yet as a youngster I was never taught the skill. I spent long hours learning to read and write and even had classroom training in public speaking, but I never had a lesson in listening or thought of listening as a learnable skill until I entered the world of mediation as an adult. While some may have had better experiences during their formative years, for many listening is often treated the same as "hearing." We do not ordinarily receive instruction in using our other senses -- smell, sight, touch and taste -- so why give lessons in hearing (sound)? A message that listening was an important skill to learn would have fallen on deaf ears when I was a child. Perhaps now that peer mediation is being taught in many classrooms across the nation, when children are taught to "Listen to your elders," they also will be taught by elders who model good listening skills.

Guidelines for Empathic Listening

Madelyn Burley-Allen offers these guidelines for empathic listening:

The ability to listen with empathy may be the most important attribute of interveners who succeed in gaining the trust and cooperation of parties to intractable conflicts and other disputes with high emotional content. Among its other advantages, as Burley-Allen points out, empathic listening has Statement Clutch Green by VIDA VIDA 6rnsb8wAN
qualities. Providing an opportunity for people to talk through their problem may clarify their thinking as well as provide a necessary emotional release. Thomas Gordon agrees that active listening facilitates problem-solving and, like Burley-Allen's primer on listening,[10] Gordon's "Leadership Effectiveness Training"[11] provides numerous exercises and suggestions for those seeking to strengthen their listening skills.

[1] Richard Salem, "Community Dispute Resolution Through Outside Intervention," VIII, no. 2/3 (1982)

[2] William Simkin, (BNA Books, 1971)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Books on effective listening cited in this paper primarily address the topic in one-on-one situations and use examples in both personal and professional settings. Three books by Thomas Gordon all use the same communication models in a variety of settings. They are Gordon's , (Bantam Books, 1977), (1974), and .

[5] Madelyn Burley-Allen, , (John Wiley sons, 1982). Burley-Allen is a former president of the American Listening Assn.

[6] Lyman K. Steil, "On Listening...and Not Listening," , (newsletter, 1981). Dr. Steil is a former president of the American Listening Assn. See also, "Effective Listening," by Steil, Barker and Watson, McGraw Hill, 1983 and "Listening Leaders," Beaver Press, forthcoming, 2003.

[7] Labor mediator Walter Maggiolo wrote that the effective mediator performs the following four essential tasks: (1) Understand and appreciate "the problems confronting the parties;" (2) Impart to the parties "the fact that the mediator knows and appreciates their problems;" (3) create "doubts in the minds of the parties about the validity of the positions they have assumed with respect to the problems;" and (4) surface or suggest "alternative approaches which may facilitate agreement." W. Maggiolo, "Techniques of Mediation," 1985.

[8] Nancy Ferrell, Oral History, Civil Rights Mediation Project, available at http://www.civilrightsmediation.org/ .

[9] Ibid, 101-102.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Gordon, , (Bantam Books, 1977). See also, Thomas Gordon, (1974).

Use the following to cite this article: Salem, Richard. "Empathic Listening." . Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 < http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening >.

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"How was I different?" Chace asked. "You listened," was the reply. "You were the only one who cared about what we were saying."[1]

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  22. Transferring funds from another bank account to your Emerald Card may not be available to all cardholders and other terms and conditions apply. There are limits on the total amount you can transfer and how often you can request transfers. BofI Federal Bank does not charge a fee for this service; please see your bank for details on its fees.
  23. 7-ELEVEN is a registered trademark of 7-Eleven, Inc.
  24. ©2015 InComm. All Rights Reserved. Vanilla Reload is provided by ITC Financial Licenses, Inc. ITC Financial Licenses, Inc. is licensed as a Money Transmitter by the New York State Department of Financial Services. Terms and conditions apply.
  25. If you request cash back when making a purchase in a store, you may be charged a fee by the merchant processing the transaction. Always ask the merchant if a surcharge applies when requesting cash back at the point of sale.
  26. Applicants must be 18 years of age in the state in which they reside (19 in Nebraska and Alabama, 21 in Puerto Rico.) Identity verification is required. Both cardholders will have equal access to and ownership of all funds added to the card account. See Cardholder Agreement for details.
  27. Use of (Tap) for Balance is governed by the HR Block Mobile and Online Banking Online Bill Payment Agreement and Disclosure. Once activated, you can view your card balance on the login screen with a tap of your finger. You should enable the security features on your mobile device, because anyone who has access to it will be able to view your account balance. You also accept all risk associated with (Tap) for Balance, and agree that neither HR Block, BofI Federal Bank nor any of their respective parents or affiliated companies have any liability associated with its use. You will still be required to login to further manage your account.
  28. Timing is based on an e-filed return with direct deposit to your Card Account.
  29. Your wireless carrier may charge a fee for data usage.
  1. Enrollment in, or completion of the HR Block Income Tax Course is neither an offer nor a guarantee of employment. Additional qualifications may be required. Enrollment restrictions apply. Book or other fees may also apply. Additional training may be required in MD and other states. This course is not intended for, nor open to any persons who are either currently employed by or seeking employment with any professional tax preparation company or organization other than HR Block. During the course, should HR Block learn of any student's employment or intended employment with a competing professional tax preparation company or service, HR Block reserves the right to immediately cancel the student's enrollment. In the event of such cancellation, the student will not be entitled to a refund of any fees paid. Valid at participating locations only. Void where prohibited. HR Block is an equal opportunity employer. HR Block is authorized for operation as a postsecondary education institution by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. In order to view detailed job placement and graduation information on the programs offered by HRB, please visit www.tn.gov/the and click on the Authorized Institutions Data button. HR Block has been approved by the California Tax Education Council to offer The HR Block Income Tax Course, course number 64136, which fulfills the 60-hour "qualifying education" requirement imposed by the State of California to become a tax preparer. A listing of additional requirements to register as a tax preparer may be obtained by contacting CTEC at P.O. Box 2890, Sacramento, CA 95812-2890; or at www.ctec.org . If you have issues enrolling in a class, please call 1-800-472-5625 for support.
  2. The course consists of 81 hours of instruction in Oregon and 88 hours of instruction in California
  3. University of Phoenix ® is a registered trademark of Apollo Group, Inc., in the United States and/or other countries. HR Block does not automatically register hours with UOP. Students will need to contact UOP to request matriculation of credit. Additional fees may apply from the University of Phoenix ®
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