A recent edition of the UK Observer magazine (1) included a short questionnaire designed to help readers decide whether they were good listeners or not. This questionnaire which made no reference to mediation was accompanied by a number of quotes from eminent sources.

Ernest Hemingway is rather pessimistically noted to have observed that “most people never listen” whilst the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium stated that “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk less”.

Perhaps in a rather more sanguine frame of mind the psychologist Erich Fromm likened listening to being an art “like the understanding of poetry”. He stated that listening requires complete attention and empathetic understanding and urges people to ask questions and aim to be interested rather than interesting.

I suspect that the reason why people do not listen is not so much that they do not hear or understand the words and sounds that emanate from other sources. Rather, they fail to “listen” because they make value judgements that are predicated on either unconscious or in some instances conscious bias. Accordingly, in the context of a dispute be it a supposedly minor tiff with a neighbour or sibling, or a heated argument in the midst of very costly litigation, people invariably tend to adopt positions first and listen last. This means that the conversations or discussions that they have are often predicated on a personal, unnecessarily subjective view of matters. This in turn means they will often lose sight of the significance of key issues and that opportunities to resolve matters swiftly and fairly will be lost.

I take the view that listening should not be likened to an art form such as poetry and that although Fromm was quite correct to urge people to aim to be interested, he is effectively turning it into an abstract that has no relevance in ordinary daily life. Listening is not so much an art to be developed as a skill that in some instances people need to grasp quite quickly. In practice, the help they need will invariably come from a third party whether someone assisting informally or through a process such as mediation.

In many respects, mediation is a very effective antidote to the process of “not listening”. The mediator will generally only have a limited time in which to facilitate the process and help the parties to reach a resolution.

Accordingly, as neutral facilitators who ask appropriate questions and guide parties through the intricacies of individual disputes, mediators not only engender a listening process but help them to look past their own subjective perceptions. In reality, this is a very unique offering but one that is very adaptable and which invariably results in mutually acceptable outcomes. It is because those involved in particular disputes have at least to some extent learned to listen that settlements reached in mediation last and the people affected can move forward.

(1) Do you talk or listen-and which is best? The Observer Magazine, 05.05.19