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Listening With A Soft Hand

With a friend, ask them to place the palm of their hand against yours, fingers pointing upwards. Don’t say what you are going to do next, just start to gently push against their hand. What happens?

Not everyone, but most people will reflexively match your push and the two hands will stay in the same place. If you slightly increase the pressure, so will they. This reaction to being pushed is not usually a conscious process, our body seems to take over and we resist, often exactly matching the degree to which force is being applied.

As mediators we know this phenomenon at a psychological level. A person says something that is perceived as a push and almost without conscious decision, there’s a push back in the opposite direction. In conversational terms this is the ‘oh yes you did’…‘oh no I didn’t’ argument.

What has occurred in both the physical and verbal situations is a reaction, an almost immediate push back against a force that has been experienced as negative. A force has been applied to one person and without thinking about it they have exactly matched that force with their own.

Not only does this dynamic apply to opposing parties, but we as mediators are subject to the same forces. A party may push you by saying ‘aren’t you meant to be sorting this out’ or ‘you’re just sitting there, why don’t you do something’. Do you want to push back by replying ‘I’m working really hard for you’ or ‘why are you always so blaming?’ Hopefully you stop yourself from making these types of replies but you will have certainly seen a version of this occur between the parties – in fact it is often why they need mediation.

Our challenge as mediators is to find ways of unhooking ourselves and others from reactions and moving towards responses. A response is what happens when we manage to actively engage our thinking and feeling in a situation. We notice that we are having a reaction and in some manner go ‘wow, I’m having a reaction perhaps I need to do something different here’.

In conversation, the reactive push back occurs all the time. Someone asks us for a piece of work and we say,’ you only gave it to me an hour ago, how could I have finished it yet’. Although the initial question may not have been intended as a push, we it as one and so defensively, we pushed back. ‘Have you tidied your room yet?’… ‘I’ve been busy, stop hassling me’ ‘Why do you never listen to me?’… ‘I always listen to you’.

These are all examples of hard hand listening, the question is perceived as a challenge or attack (a push) and the reply is a defensive block (a push back).

In order to be responsive we need a soft hand – we need to engage with the other person without tension, to feel relaxed and open to whatever may happen. A soft hand is an indication that we welcome whatever might occur and are looking forward to engaging with it. There will be a sense of being open, fascinated and confident, prepared to be vulnerable and to not know the answer.

In the physical example, if we are responsive and someone starts to push our hand we might initially tense up and resist, but if we can notice this reaction, we start to create choices. We might just go with their push – allowing our hand to move closer to our body. It may get too close to our body so we decide to take a step back. We might ask them to stop or we might punch them on the nose, but the key issue is whether we are free of our initial reaction and making a clear choice.

In the conversational examples, a soft hand response might be ‘I’m sorry, what am I not understanding?’ or ‘you’re right I’ve been really distracted and stressed, but I’m focussed now’. These responses are not defensive, they are engaged, they create the possibility of change and they may help to move the situation forward.

Within the context of mediation, the benefits of a soft hand approach should be obvious. This style is particularly helpful when parties are resistant to engaging in a joint meeting. It can be very easy for parties to say no, which can leave us as mediators feeling like we are being pushed or that our offer of help is being rejected. A hard handed approach will be to start talking about the benefits of mediation and why it is an opportunity for them – this is like trying harder to sell them something they have said they don’t want. A soft-handed approach will be to allow ourselves to be pushed and see where it takes us.

For example, when a party says, ‘Why should I go to the joint meeting, I’ll never trust them again’ a hard handed reaction might be – ‘well it will be a good opportunity for them to hear your concerns and perhaps you can both find a way to move forward together’. This continues to push them toward the joint meeting and may deepen their resistance.

A soft handed response might be ‘it sounds as if trust is a key issue for you – can you say a bit more about that’. This starts to explore their concern, knowing that at some point the mediator needs to return to the issue of the joint meeting.

This shift from reactive to responsive is dependent on two key facets – one is to understand that the initial statement or question is not an attack but a gift of energy. The second is self-management – what do you need to do internally to support your soft-handed approach?

Calling an attack a gift of energy comes from the perspective of Aikido. Aikido is a defensive martial art – in order to ‘do a technique’ you need someone to attack you. As a beginner this can be scary and we tend to react by shying away from the attack; with time and practice, we like people to attack us with speed and commitment because it is easier to do a technique if we receive a strong gift of energy.

As mediators the stronger the resistance the more we get to practice soft handed listening and so build our skills and competence. It is also crucial to remember that the ‘push’ is happening for a reason and we don’t yet know very much about that reason. A soft-handed approach allows us, with the party, to explore the reason beneath the push.

The second facet is the ability to manage ourselves in the face of being pushed; to be able to step beyond our fight, flight or freeze reactions. Being able to centre ourselves is what supports us in moving away from a habitual reaction.

We are centred when we are focussed and relaxed – attentive without tension. Being centred is not about being fixed in space – it is about moving when needed, having a sense of fluidity, ease and strength.

On the physical level when we engage with a soft hand, we can move with their push, if they withdraw their hand we can stay gently in contact; at its best this exercise can start to feel like a dance.

The turning points that I have experienced in many mediations are when the parties start to recognise that the other party is in fact a human being and their hand softens, there is some movement back and forth and rather than a fight they start to move toward dance. I would like to think that one of the things that supports this change is that I have managed to practice a bit of soft handed listening.

So, how do we get centred and move from a reaction to a response? What follows are some of the ways that work for me:

  • First you need to notice that you have been pushed and may be pushing back
  • Take a breath and then take another one and then another. Try to make them deep, allow the air to infuse you, to fill you.
  • If there is a facet of your life that helps you gain perspective, now is the time to call on it. This may be a religious faith, a belief system, a scientific discipline, a spiritual practice. Whatever it is, if it works for you – managing to use it in moments of stuck reaction is the time you need it most and also the time it can feel furthest away.
  • Move your body, jiggle a bit or sit up straighter,
  • Notice your thoughts, be gentle with yourself, if your inner critic is beating you up, perhaps you need to start cultivating an inner benevolent grandparent.
  • Internally go and visit a favourite place, somewhere you feel safe and at ease. Allow the physical sensations of being in this place to wash over you, to cradle you. How do things look and feel from this place?
  • Remember times and places where you have felt centred in the past. Yoga, meditation and some martial arts can give us this as does gardening, playing a musical instrument, sport, knitting, cooking. What you are looking for is a state of relaxed awareness.

Of course, being able to listen with a soft hand won’t necessarily stop you having reactions but it can speed up both the internal and external move from being reactive to being responsive.


Nigel Singer

Nigel is a mediator, trainer, coach and facilitator who works across the public, private and voluntary sectors. He has been a mediator since 1991 and a mediation trainer since 1992.  He lives in Bristol UK with his partner, two teenage daughters and a vicious cat.   MORE >

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