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Listening Matters

From Maria Simpson’s Two Minute Trainings

Since the election I’ve been hearing the same analysts that talked about the tone and style of the debates now talking a lot about listening and how so many people failed to listen carefully to others and understand their concerns. Mediators hear this all the time as a source of disputes. (“You never listen!”) Even Glenn Beck, a very talkative fellow, said in an interview with Don Lemon on CNN, “I have to really listen. . . . I should shut up now.” (11/12/16)
A few concepts seem to be repeated, so I thought I’d summarize them and see if there are implications about listening for all of us.
First, people didn’t pay enough attention to the impact their choice of words would have, however unintended. The words used to describe two groups of voters, “educated and uneducated,” had consequences far beyond simply being unartful. They were a clumsy way of distinguishing between people with college degrees and people without college degrees. However, that is not what members of the “uneducated” group heard. One white male voter said that every time a reporter or analyst divided voters into “educated” and “uneducated” groups, the “uneducated” voter heard “stupid,” and they are not stupid. Those voters may not have college degrees, but they have skills and knowledge many of us college graduates can’t touch. It was insulting, and the speakers didn’t recognize the impact.
David Brooks in a commentary on PBS said that as soon as he heard that comment he realized how insensitive he had been to how being labeled “uneducated” can offend people. In his 11/8 column in the New York Times, Brooks used “educated and less educated” and I have difficulty with those terms, too. The terms indicate that the standard is “educated,” defined by implication as having a college degree, and “less educated” meaning not up to the standard, inferior. Even if that was not the intention, that was the impact, and people got mad.
A student once told me that he had been instructed to call the participants in mediation the “party” and the “other.” Ouch. The “other” automatically defines that person as an outsider, as not one of us, and bias can set in. I suggested instead that participants be referred to by their roles, “tenant and landlord,” “owner and renter,” “creditor and client” (rather than “debtor” which has no much negative baggage attached to it).
Roles are generally neutral terms and help people maintain their dignity during a dispute. Calling someone a “deadbeat” will generate bias jus as calling someone loser, liar or unfit creates bias.
Another point in the discussion relates to assumptions. Analysts said there was a feeling of “I know better” on both sides. Understanding was undermined by the assumption that the listener knew better than the speakers and dismissed the comments and arguments as uninformed and irrelevant. “Being Pretentious” is as big a bias as any other.
A third observation concerned how the two groups of voters listened in addition to what they listened for. One analyst said that when reporters heard exaggerations from one candidate they immediately went to “fact-check” the statement and called them lies, at the same time wondering in amazement about why the lies weren’t rejected by supporters. The supporters, though, dismissed the exaggerations, saying that they understood the statements as just that, exaggerations, and focused on them instead as articulations of ideals and concepts that maybe the fact-checkers didn’t pay much attention to.
While the reporters took the statements literally, the group of supporting voters took the statements seriously, but not literally, and found a connection to the candidate in the values underlying the exaggerations. For example, not allowing Muslims into the country was heard as a metaphor for keeping the country safe from terrorism but not as literally banning members of a specific religion from entering.
The last point that interested me, although I’m sure the next few weeks will bring more, was that the “elites” simply failed to listen.
“Elites” are the college-educated, the people who are in the cities and in fast-moving elite professions, like the reporters and analysts, who move up the ladder quickly and earn bushels of money. It was suggested that they see others whose lives have not changed a whole lot, have not benefited from the revolution in technology, whose lives are pretty much the same as generations before and want to continue those generational values and professions, as stuck in the past, inferior, and not future-oriented, which includes the implication that the past has no value. The white middle class voter was marginalized and generally ignored, and their contributions to building this country and the economy were dismissed in the process as well. (Brooks, NYT, 11/8/16, A17.)
“Elites” just didn’t take the comments they heard seriously (or the candidate himself, for that matter). They heard words but they didn’t believe what they heard because it was incomprehensible to them. They couldn’t hear the underlying feelings and issues because they discounted statements of support, and missed the important point: Mutual concerns create relationships, and people voted for people with whom they felt that relationship. 
There are now counter-arguments being proposed suggesting that people heard exactly what was said, believed it literally, and agreed with the ugliness and racism. Supporters voted for someone who connected with and clearly represented those negative values instead of the more positive interpretation that says the harsh language was just metaphorical. Both interpretations will take time to sort out.
People listen in many different ways and speakers speak for many different purposes. When the two sets of purposes don’t match, then people aren’t heard.

  • Some speakers want to deliver information, and to an audience that wants the information or wants to clarify information they already have, the speaking/listening cycle is successful.
  • Some speakers want to tell a good story and tell it well, and some listeners want to hear it for the pleasure of the experience. The TED talks are wonderful examples of good tales well told.
  • Some people speak to persuade others, but if the arguments are not convincing and don’t address the values or feelings of the listener, the exchange is not successful.
  • Some people speak to share their values and beliefs and be connected to others, and listeners want to make a connection with others who share those values. Religious leaders speak to foster values and beliefs, and we listen to hear that someone agrees with us, that we are validated as people.
  • Some speakers need very much to find empathy from someone, especially in difficult times, and many wonderful listeners provide that empathy. When people are uncomfortable with feelings, though, the exchange is not successful, and the speaker feels let down, unsupported, alone.

The commentators seem finally to have learned the lessons about listening that mediators have been trying to teach forever. When people speak we need to listen respectfully, not dismissively, and not just to the words and the information being conveyed, but to the meaning, the feelings, needs, and values being conveyed at the same time.
I wish that having learned these lessons, or at least recognized them, reporters and analysts would actually apply them and quit interrupting and talking over each other and getting louder and more aggressive and argumentative. No one’s neutral anymore, and I’m getting really tired of listening.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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