A mediator describing her mediation style:

Mediator: “Well the most important thing about mediation is communicating to the parties that I know their intent was good.”

Gaye: “So tell me a little bit more about that…”

Mediator: “People are very defensive when they come in to mediation.  They think they’re going to be put on the spot to explain why they did things.  Once they get it from me that I know their intent was good, their shoulders drop down, they relax, they are much more open and willing to listen to the other party because they’re not so worried about defending themselves.”

Gaye: “How do you communicate that you know their intent was good?”

Mediator: “Through the way I frame the questions. I don’t put them on the spot or assume that they had bad intent or assume that they were doing something wrong.  I don’t judge them.  I question them by giving them an opportunity to explain what they were thinking.  I do it with a soft voice and soft eyes, and relaxed body posture.  It’s hard to explain.”


What does civility mean in today’s world?  If we take a look at national deliberation about health care, immigration, race, class, and gender in the workplace or professional athletes’ rights to free speech, it’s probably fair to say that ideological divisions increasingly dominate already polarized conversations.  Bret Stephens of the New York Times gave voice to the idea of civility recently in what he called the “Dying Art of Disagreement”:

Instead, we fight each other from the safe distance of our separate islands of ideology and identity and listen intently to echoes of ourselves. We take exaggerated and histrionic offense to whatever is said about us. We banish entire lines of thought and attempt to excommunicate all manner of people — your humble speaker included — without giving them so much as a cursory hearing.

Stephens goes on to argue that the art of disagreement is actually something people should cherish as it is the mark of a healthy and an educated citizenry: “To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind […].”  For journalists, at least, Stephens claims:

But no country can have good government, or a healthy public square, without high-quality journalism — journalism that can distinguish a fact from a belief and again from an opinion; that understands that the purpose of opinion isn’t to depart from facts but to use them as a bridge to a larger idea called “truth”; and that appreciates that truth is a large enough destination that, like Manhattan, it can be reached by many bridges of radically different designs.  In other words, journalism that is grounded in facts while abounding in disagreements.

If a healthy public square needs to pulse with imaginative differences, making communication both risky and potentially transformative, it would seem that pursuing effective deliberation requires a long game.   At the same time, difference is incredibly easy to access through every day interactions.  In the past week, for example, I heard my hair stylist describe why he wants to continue a relationship despite a lack of reciprocity, a friend define why she needed to take her argument for professional athletes’ free speech rights live on Facebook, and my six year old son confess that he likes to wear shorts when it is freezing cold outside.  Clearly, differences exist.  So how does one pursue disagreement?  How does one encourage difference?

Mediators often talk about subtle communication strategies that unlock the most potential for transformation.  The mediator I quoted above argued for the importance of pre-mediation conferences with parties so that there was an opportunity for an initial exhale—to tell her/his story about the conflict—to understand the importance of confidentiality, to be prepared for the conversation, and to know the support of the mediator. “They know by the time I’ve finished talking to them that I really want them to succeed, and that I’m really looking out for them, and I’m not going to let them get hurt. […] And then when we get in the room the trust is already there.”

What makes mediation work, therefore, is an art of listening.  It is powerful to give people an opportunity to explain themselves, free from judgment or reprisal.  Fisher, Ury, and Patton argue in Getting to Yes that in conflict the initial exhale is what helps to separate people from problems.  In narrative mediation, initial stories allow facilitators to begin externalizing and mapping out differences between topics, emotions, and relationships.  Ironically, it is often the people in conflict that get the most out of telling their own stories.

Lenore Langsdorf argues through the rhetorical concept of poiesis how the self is remade in the process of interacting with others.  She uses the example of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where members tell and retell their stories to others, simultaneously reconstructing self in each new narration. Literally, possibilities for fresh ideas take on dimension, expand, and reconfigure through the act of storytelling for an audience.  Seemingly, the creative art of storytelling within judgment free contexts could set difference in motion.

However, Carl Rogers and F. J. Roethlisberger in a 1952 article for Harvard Business Review: “Barriers and Gateways to Communication” state, “The biggest block between two people is their inability to listen to each other intelligently, understandingly, and skillfully” (111). Rogers and Roethlisberger note how seemingly simple the art of listening is, but they also confirm the difference between simplicity and intuition.  What seems simple may have a tendency to be dismissed—listening is after all a soft skill.  When I teach listening to my students I feel like I have to give a defense for why we are spending time on something so obvious.  Rogers and Roethlisberger counter:  “This may sound absurdly simple, but it is not.  In fact, it is an extremely potent approach in psychotherapy” (107).

Empathic listening thus seems at the very least to be the exercising of a muscle; a muscle that gains strength over time.  Rogers and Roethlisberger suggest this exercise:

The next time you get into an argument with your spouse, friend, or small group of friends, stop the discussion for a moment and suggest this rule: ‘Before each person speaks up, he or she must first restate the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately and to that speaker’s satisfaction.’ You see what this would mean.  Before presenting your own point of view, you would first have to achieve the other speaker’s frame of reference.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if you try it, you will find it one of the most difficult things you have ever attempted to do. (106)

Rogers and Roethlisberger know that the above exercise becomes especially difficult when emotion is out of line with reason, which is often the case in conflict.  Listening therefore takes on interesting dimension when one has to suppress the desire to attack or avoid.  When one is involved in an argument with another it seems a Herculean task to be mindful of the other’s meaning.  What Rogers and Roethlisberger highlight, however, is the fact that listening is not intuitive; listening is a skill that is built through hard work and practice.

How does one build the skill of listening?  I believe it starts with self-awareness and impact.   I will never forget a profound experience of telling a difficult story before a panel of professional mediators.  I was interviewing to be a part of a mediation practicum: a two year process that would earn a mediation certification.  Before a panel of four mediators I was asked all kinds of questions, and the one that gave me pause in particular was: “What was a challenging situation for you, how did you handle the challenging situation, and what was the outcome?”  Immediately one story sprung to mind, crowding out other options, but I had never been able to tell the story without culling lots of emotion.  I decided to tell the story, give a chronology of events, talk about different players, describe my role, and my problem-solving strategies.  In the telling, I wondered if the interview panel would think less of me as a result of the challenging situation I narrated.

The first response was one I will never forget: “That must have been a difficult story to tell.”  In that moment, this mediator communicated that not only did he hear the content of my story, but also seemed to be in touch with all the dynamics surrounding the choice to tell the story: the potential impact of the story on my professional image, my ability to handle conflict, and my own internal deliberation around the painful memory.  I left that interview finally able to let go of my painful experience.  I was given the power to move on.

It was the experience of telling a challenging story free from reprisal that made me want to learn how to listen.  So I practice.  This past week I had my hair cut with a new stylist, and I asked him how long he had lived in the area, what got him interested in hair styling, and more.  At the beginning, my hair stylist talked about moving from another state because he did not feel that he could be fully himself.  So I asked questions about what being fully yourself meant.  Once he realized that I wasn’t going to pass judgment, which he tested by disclosing a little bit about his identity, he then narrated more relationship difficulties.  At the end of the hour hair cut he confessed that he was sorry he talked so long, but was really moved that I listened so well.  Knowing the power of an exhale, I knew that brief interaction would help my hair stylist consider new ideas, and perhaps consider new ways to advocate for his emotional health.

Yes, listening is a soft skill.  Yet listening is also one of the only access points to innovation.  Listening allows people to gather information, map out perceptions, experiences, and interpretations of the world, while nurturing tolerance for differences.  As my mediator colleague explained at the beginning of this essay, mediation pre-conferences are absolutely essential for productive deliberation.  “People are very defensive when they come in to mediation.  They think they’re going to be put on the spot to explain why they did things.  Once they get it from me that I know their intent was good, their shoulders drop down, they relax, they are much more open and willing to listen to the other party because they’re not so worried about defending themselves.”  The good news is that listening is something one can learn in the little moments that make up daily life and slowly and steadily get better over time. Simple? No. But worth it?  Well, only you can answer that question.

Works Cited

Bammert, Gaye M. “Narrating the Church: Protestant Women Pastors Challenge Nostalgic Desire.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 26.2 (2010): 141-162.

Fisher, Roger, Ury, William, and Patton, Bruce. Getting to Yes.  2nd ed. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Langsdorf, Lenore. “In Defense of Poeisis: The Performance of Self in Communicative Praxis.” In Calvin O. Schrag and the Task of Philosophy after Postmodernity, ed. Martin Beck Matustik and William McBride. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002.

Mediator One. Personal Interview. 10 July 2015.

Rogers, Carl R. and Roethlisberger, F.J. “Barriers and Gateways in Communication.” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1991: 105-111.

Stephens, Bret. “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” New York Times. 24 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/opinion/dying-art-of-disagreement.html?_r=0.  Accessed 25 September 2017.