Talk is cheap. Listening is where the money is.
Mediators need to be very good listeners. Ellen Schnur teaches active listening in an unexpected way. She teaches comic improvisation, through her company, ImprovTalk. Her clients are frequently CEOs. Improv, it turns out, is more about listening than coming up with clever retorts. On stage, the great Second City alum are mostly great listeners. Ellen explained why listening is so hard.
“Not judging someone is part of the superpower of listening. In the law, you're always forming an opinion about what people have to say and when you start forming an opinion and thinking about that, you're missing what they're saying. You're not listening. I tell people to leave their judgments at the door."
Sheer boredom keeps us from listening effectively, too. "Speed is one of the realities of trying to listen to people talking. Our brains are able to process about 400 words a minute. Auctioneers don't even talk that fast. The normal everyday person talks about 125 words a minute and we all know people who talk slower than that.
From 125 up to 400, that's a big gap. What happens in that gap? We start thinking about other things. We're not paying attention. We get bored.“
Unless we're totally focused and 100% present, our minds start wandering or even more often, we start thinking about what we want to say. And in high stress situations, in a court room, you're doing that a lot.The problem is if you're thinking about what you're going to say, you're totally missing what they're saying. People panic at that point because they think, 'Well, but I have to think about what I want to say or I won't say the right thing.' You're not going to say the right thing if you don't listen to everything that person says, so we practice listening to every word, paying attention to every non-verbal cue, being 100% present to what's happening and then responding."
Particularly in the mediation setting, close active listening is more persuasive than mentally rehearsing your arguments.
"You have to really listen, get in each person's shoes, and understand where they are coming from so that you are clear what the two sides are, as clear as you can be. Then you can try to get them to listen in a similar fashion."
Ellen emphasizes close listening without taking notes or as few notes as possible. Then let the person know they have been heard and understood. One way is rephrasing what you heard in your own words. Once a person feels heard, they can relax a little bit and start to become receptive.
"You can't stop listening to someone, because the minute you disengage you're missing pieces of what they're saying. You have to stay 100% present with what they're saying and if there's a thought plaguing you, write it down, set it aside, forget about it and keep listening. Stay focused on what they are saying so you don't miss anything they say.
"People are used to hearing the counterarguments. I give you my argument. You give me your argument. You end up with dueling monologues. When one stops the monologue and starts engaging with the other person, they start loosening up a little bit and begin to listen.
"Otherwise, they're listening for a minute or so but then they're off in their own head. You can talk all you want and they're just going to nod their heads. People are really good at pretending like they're listening and they're not listening unless you're a really good communicator and really know the signs of someone not listening, but trust me, they're not listening. It doesn't matter what you say."
Ellen’s approach works with clients, too. "I tell parents to do this with teenagers. They say, 'I want to go to a party.' Of course, the usual answer is, no. It's Saturday night, you're 14 years old. No, you're not going to a party. I know what happens in a party. You are not going to convince your kids by lecturing at them.
“Instead, try this, 'Oh, you want to go to a party? That's great. Tell me about the party, okay?’ You ask questions like, ‘Oh, are their parents coming home?’ You know, you keep engaging them about what they want to do, and asking questions and getting into their world without judging.
"They start to figure things out themselves. As long as you are telling somebody something that they don't want to hear, they're going to stay right where they are." Similarly, with clients,, engage and work with them. "Oh, so you want him to hang by his toenails on Tuesday morning. Okay great, all right, so do you think we can make that happen? Well, probably not, maybe we can't hang him by his toenails. What else do you think we could do? Well maybe we could at least make him pay a $10 million fine. Oh, that would be great. With $10 million, that would be awesome. Do you think he has $10 million? Probably not. Oh, okay, what else could we do to him besides hanging him by his toenails and getting $10 million?"