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Listening Sticks

Listening Sticks

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about ‘talking sticks’. Probably something like twenty-five or thirty years ago. What I can remember is sitting in a circle, as an ornamental stick wrapped in multi-coloured wool, was passed from person to person round the group. The rule was that only the person holding the stick was allowed to speak.  Derived from a Native American tradition, the aim of the ritual was to ensure that everyone’s voice had a place, so that no one would be overlooked.

Sadly, I can’t recall whether the talking stick actually made a difference in the quality of the conversation. What I do remember was feeling a growing sense of anxiety as the stick came closer and close, and I frantically searched for something meaningful to say.

Anxiety aside, there is undoubtedly something very democratic about talking sticks. The practice is underpinned by a belief that every voice matters. There is also an implicit assumption that speaking is fundamental to effective communication. A sense that to use words is to put ourselves out into the world – and finding ways of speaking ‘our truths’ with clarity, coherence and passion needs to be supported and nourished.

In the time between then and now, the emphasis on finding and using one’s voice has continued to grow. We live in a society where messages such as “Every voice matters” and that we should “Speak up, Speak out” have gained more and more currency. Social media only serves to amplify the primacy of voice, with the virtual world becoming an instantaneous echo chamber.

Not surprisingly, these beliefs also show up in mediation. Clients arrive with a very clear and practiced version of events. They are more than keen to ‘tell their story’. The narrative that emerges is often well rehearsed, having been tried out on friends and family, not to mention inside their own heads.

I have no intention of arguing that speaking doesn’t matter. It is obviously vital for clients to be able to articulate what they think, feel and need. If they are unable to speak openly and freely, then mediators are likely to express doubts about the usefulness of mediation. It’s not that speaking is unimportant, only in the context of mediation, I argue it is the capacity to listen that matters more.

In part, this article arose from the realisation that while we have talking sticks, I’ve never heard of anyone using a listening stick. Holding the stick would imply that you are tasked with listening as closely and attentively as possible. That the challenge is to understand as fully as possible what the other is saying.

As a mediator, I know that I talk too much. Partly this is about steering the conversation, framing the issues in particular ways, keeping control. I’m also good with words, clever and articulate. The problem is that my words aren’t always helpful. Sometimes they only serve as distractions and impediments.

Parties often make the same mistake. They trot out their arguments, justify their behaviour, and explain why they are being eminently reasonable. They seek to persuade and convince. The stream of language that bursts forth is designed to sweep away any opposition or objection. And of course, the other side does precisely the same thing. The room is soon filled with highly charged language. No wonder that linguistic explosions are common occurrences.

As mediators, we have to promise parties that they will have their opportunity to speak. In fact, this is one of the few things that mediators can actually promise. And people need the chance to say what’s important to them, the things that really matter. Mediation wouldn’t be worthwhile if parties were deprived of the opportunity to share their issues, concerns, and proposals.

The problem arises when parties assume that saying is sufficient. That if they speak clearly and convincingly, the other side will see the error of their ways and give in. After nearly a quarter of a century mediating, I struggle to remember this ever happening.

From my perspective, mediation is a chance for clients to make choices about how to proceed. Which isn’t to say that parties don’t start the process with options already in mind.  Each side often start out by advocating a wish list. As for listening, it usually only manifest in the attempt to find the cracks and flaws in the other side’s proposals. This is subtractive listening, trying to narrow down choice to a single option – their own.

Resolution depends on additive listening. This is a form of listening that invites all possible options into the room and onto the table. This only happens when parties have a sincere interest in trying to understand rather than undermine. To hear what is being said, what it means and why it matters. Rather than narrow the array of potential choices, the aim is to expand the pool to the maximum size. Only when all the material are out on display, can the parties truly come up with creative options.

Listening is central to this process. Not simply to hear and react, but to hear and attend. To express sincere interest and curiosity.  And equally, to be forthright in one’s ignorance – to be clear what makes sense and what doesn’t. Never to assume that understanding a part equates to understanding the whole, but to continually check and recheck one’s understanding throughout the process. To travel at the pace of comprehension rather than competition.

I know that many of the above tasks often fall to the mediator. We spend time and energy trying to generate an increase in mutual understanding. We look to help parties talk about their interest and needs, rather than simply bang the drum of their fixed positions. We employ the tools of ‘active listening’ – asking question, reflecting, summarising, as well as offering acknowledgement and recognition.

My question is why we believe its ok for the parties to be in the role of ‘passive listeners’? Why aren’t we adamant from the outset that neither eloquence nor argument is likely to shift anything? We know full well that what makes a difference is a greater degree of mutual understanding. And that can only be acquired by a commitment to really listening to one another.  In the absence of this principle we do a disservice both to our clients and ourselves.

In truth, I’d like to shut up more in my work. Stop trying to be clever, not keep searching for the killer question or the magic intervention. I’d like the parties to do the heavy lifting. It’s their problem after all. And make no mistake, listening is far harder than talking. It’s why a listening stick makes sense. The person in possession might need to have several goes at understanding, before the other feels heard. At which point, and only at that point, would the stick change hands.

I’d be proud to be a mediator in this kind of session. Proud not because I was doing anything special or extraordinary, but because I was privileged to witness the struggle to increase mutual understanding. Not merely as an intellectual or moral exercise, but as an attempt to arrive at a way forward that works out in the world. This is mediation is peace-making.

I’m not sure how clients would respond if I introduced the notion of a listening stick. My hope is that it might help them turn down their own internal noise sufficiently to hear the other, even if only intermittently. To start with understanding rather than the attempt to persuade. For clients to realise that there are no prizes for giving the best speech.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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