No skill is more vital to mediation than the ability to listen. The sheer number of phrases and images we have developed to characterize listening skills — Active Listening, Inclusive Listening, Reflective Listening, Comprehensive Listening, Appreciative Listening, “listening for the song beneath the words,” and the Chinese character “ting” – all attest to the centrality of listening in our work.
Training in listening is a regular part of skill-building for mediation and conflict resolution, whether done through role-play, paired sharing, or other exercises. Most of us also try to practice listening skills in life contexts as well as in our work. But we inevitably face moments when our skills and intentions are challenged by an unfamiliar or even baffling perspective. Where can we go to stretch our capacities?
From my first career in elementary and secondary education, I found that listening to children required just such abilities, and the more I listened, the more new listening skills I learned.
Let me give an example. Having entered a school as its principal well into the academic year, because of the incumbent’s severe illness, I dropped by the cubby area where the youngest children were getting ready to leave for the day. A four-year-old girl a few feet from me began to speak, looking past me at another child just behind me. “My daddy died, Tommy,” she said. “I know,” replied Tommy. “He drank a lot of medicine, but he still died.” Tommy turned and left, but the little girl continued to gather her things. I recalled being told on one of my briefings that a parent at the school had passed away in the summer.
“Were you thinking about your daddy today?” I asked.
“I guess it made you sad.”
“Do you have someone you can talk to when you feel sad?”
“My big sister.”
“Well, you can come to me if you want someone to talk to.”
“Okay,” she said, and hurried off.
What ingenuity, I thought to myself. Not a cry for help, but a subtle test. “Here’s this new person. Can I trust him? Will he help me? If I tell Tommy about my daddy, what will the new person do?” Fortunately, I seemed to have passed
I have had many similar experiences, though few as poignant. One October day the school nurse asked me if a new third-grader who had been having recurrent stomach pains could stay I my office while she attended to other business, until his mother could pick him up. To occupy him I offered him a small wooden figure which had evidently been made on a spindle, because it had a hole in the bottom into which you could put your finger. As the boy played with it, he began to talk about how it had been used as a torture device, with black widow spiders place din the hole and prisoners forced to put it on their finger. The more he talked, the more concern I felt. I remembered what one psychologist had called the back of the neck test: “If what the child is saying or doing makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, it’s probably a serious matter.” I talked with the nurse and the mother, and the next week learned that the child had been diagnosed with a severe motional problem.
Sometimes the message came from the parent to whom the child had spoken. Henry, age three, usually a model child, had begun acting up. Maybe he was jealous of his baby sister Molly? I spoke with his mother, who said that her husband had been away on business far more than usual. That morning, she told me, he had asked “What if you go away, Mommy?” “What do you mean, Henry?”
“Well if you went away, I’d have to take care of me and Molly. But I can’t cook very well, and I can’t read, so how can I do the mail?” Behavior explained.
Precisely because they often see the world so differently from adults, and because they reveal themselves indirectly, children offer us as mediators a chance to enter a mental world as unlike our own as that of any client under significant stress. So take every opportunity you can, first-hand or second-hand, to explore children’s ways of making their needs known. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “You can hear a lot just by listening.”
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