Jennifer Egsgard IAM Mentee 

Many of us are experiencing seemingly endless coronavirus-mandated lockdowns in close, relentless companionship – of partners, children, or housemates. This presents an opportunity for closeness borne from the intensity of the experience but also increases the chance of conflict from which it may be difficult to retreat. Our usual coping mechanisms – time alone or outside, exercise, fresh company – may be hard to access, causing disagreements to loom larger. Whether about child or homecare responsibilities, prioritizing careers, “irritating” behaviour, the permutations for possible quarantine conflict are as varied as we are.

Mediators are trained to address conflict and to help people move through it to resolution. One important tool that mediators use in managing conflict is active listening, the process by which a listener periodically summarizes what a speaker is saying.

Active listening, or “looping”, was a cornerstone of the Harvard commercial mediation course I took in 2017. I was skeptical as I reviewed the advance materials. Almost everyone has heard of active listening; it’s not exactly rocket science. Wouldn’t adults find it patronizing and obvious, particularly in the context of sophisticated disputes? In any case, I considered myself to be a pretty good listener already so I wasn’t sure the concept would add much to my repertoire.  

Fast forward to the first morning of the Harvard course, as I partnered with another litigator to practice “looping”. Although I knew precisely what my partner was doing, I was shocked at how quickly I felt very understood, and how willing I suddenly was to share information I normally kept to myself. 

So began my deep respect for active listening. On returning home I used my newfound approach in conversations with my litigation clients. Immediately I noticed a shift in our relationship. Even longstanding clients shared more, sometimes very personal information with me about the interests and motivations behind their disputes. I was able to use this to better tailor litigation strategies to suit their particular concerns.

I also tested my new skills with our two sons, then ages 7 and 9, when they were in conflict with one another or me. While not infallible, it often worked like magic and quickly quelled their anger.

Since becoming a mediator, active listening has been an invaluable part of my toolkit. From shareholder to employment disputes, active listening focuses my attention, deepens my understanding of the conflict, the lawyers and their clients involved in it, and helps all of us to arrive at more satisfying resolutions. I was not surprised to recently learn that it’s a technique also used by hostage negotiators. It’s also not hard to learn: during the lockdowns, I’ve been giving interactive active listening webinars, with participants later reporting better conversations with colleagues, partners, and children when they remember to use their newfound skill.

Active listening works for several reasons.

First, it forces the listener to slow down and really listen to the content of what someone is saying. So often when we purport to be ‘listening’, we are actually busy reacting:  judging; feeling defensive; preparing a snappy reply; identifying a time when the “exact same thing happened” to us; or coming up with a solution. In order to reflect back what someone has just said we are forced to actually listen, not just when they start talking, but all the way until they are finished.

Second, because active listening makes the speaker feel more deeply understood, it is easier for them to become more open and trusting in the conversation. Knowing that they no longer need to advocate for their grievances, because that work is complete, the speaker may become more open to hearing another perspective.   They may also share more privately held concerns that might be playing a part in the conflict and be relevant to finding satisfying solutions.

So, how do you do it?

  1. Listen: The hardest part of active listening is… actually listening. Try to feel genuinely curious about the speaker’s perspective. When you notice yourself reacting, bring your focus back to what the speaker is saying. This takes continual effort.
  2. Check that you understand: Periodically summarize the basic thrust of what the speaker has said to make sure you are understanding them correctly. You don’t need to agree with them. You don’t need to repeat them word for word, which would quickly become quite awkward and annoying. You might say something like, “I just want to stop you to make sure I understand what you’re saying…” If the speaker corrects you, summarize the new information until you’ve got it right. The powerful part of active listening is the speaker’s experience of someone finally really paying attention, not that you’ve summarized correctly the first time.
  3. Don’t change the narrative: This part is very hard. We often want to jump in with solutions, or to chase down a question perplexing us about a story. Our goal is to follow the speaker in what they believe is important, and not – at this point – cause them to change course based on our own narrative needs. I have sometimes found that what I think is important is not what a speaker is trying to tell me. By distracting them with my own questions or input, I can lose their willingness to share what matters to them.

Then what?

In an ideal world, each person involved in a conflict will have a chance to be listened to in this way, though this is not always possible.  Even if you are the only one practicing active listening, you may find that dynamics between you and your pandemic partners change, opening a space to talk more productively about conflict. After people in conflict understand one another, the next stages toward resolution are to identify the issues causing the problems, then to brainstorm and agree upon solutions. These are other important parts of a mediator’s skill set, but within everyone’s capabilities. Practising active listening throughout this process can keep conversations more productive.

During my family’s time in lockdown, our children have become sophisticated critics of my conflict resolution skills. Our elder son recently expressed frustration with, basically, his life. I started summing it up as I usually do when he cut me off, “Mom, just because you tell me what I said doesn’t fix it!”

Before I could respond our younger son said thoughtfully, “Actually it does help. When she tells you what you said, you know she understands why you are upset, and that makes you feel better.”

So there you have it. Active listening won’t solve all your pandemic problems. It may, however, help you to better understand your quarantine company so that together you can find solutions to ongoing conflict.

Jennifer Egsgard is a Canadian lawyer and mediator currently living in London, UK.

The ideas relating to “active listening”, a version of which is known as “looping”, in this piece are based largely, but not exactly, on the teachings of Gary Friedman, Bob Mnookin and Dana Curtis, instructors at the “Mediating Disputes” Executive Education Course at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, combined with my own experiences. More information about the techniques of active listening or “looping”, can be found in their texts: “Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding” by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein; “Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes” by Robert H. Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet and Andrew S. Tulumello. “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it” by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss is another book advocating the use of active listening although in a different context.

This article is not intended to apply to situations where domestic violence is a possibility. Please contact emergency services for advice if you feel unsafe.