When I prepare a witness for a deposition, I cover certain fundamentals. Among the most basic are these: “Listen to the question. Let the questioner finish the question. Be sure you understand the question before you begin to answer it. If you don’t understand it, ask for clarification.”
Even with that instruction, and even after I practice with the witness, at most depositions, within 15 or 20 minutes of the start, I have to ask for a break and remind the witness to not to interrupt the questioner.
Why do I see this again and again? Because under stress, most people revert to habit. Typically, most of us don’t listen. Our ordinary conversational habits are terrible. In conversation, most people don’t let the speaker finish. As soon as one person thinks they know what the speaker is saying the “listener” interrupts and launches his or her own comment.
The imperfection of ordinary conversation is a real opportunity for a mediator. People ache to be heard. This is never more true than when people are locked in a bitter dispute and have spent months or even years arguing with one another — advancing their best arguments and ignoring the other side.
A mediator who listens to all sides of a dispute — and who demonstrates that he or she is listening — is a breath of fresh air.
Communication scholars call it “active listening,” and it is perhaps the most basic of all a mediator’s tools. “Active listening is certainly not complex. Listeners need only restate, in their own language their experience of the expression of the sender.” Thomas Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training (New York Wyle Books 1977) at 57.
There are lots of ways to do this. One of the first mediators I ever saw repeated what he was told: verbatim!
Most couldn’t do that, but we can restate our understanding of what each participant said. That’s independently important when the mediator isn’t exactly sure what is meant. Seeking clarification on points where there is uncertainty not only improves the mediator’ s understanding, it assures the party that he (or she) has been heard.
Just providing assurance that a participant has been heard and understood is a step towards resolution.