In this paper I will share how I found out that the listening approach I have used for almost two decades was completely unique. It is based on a happy misunderstanding of Carl Rogers. But I am getting ahead of myself. I want to thank Clare Fowler for her excitement and willingness to encourage me to write this paper months ago, when I was first seeking to publish my findings.
In the 1990s I began mediating deep-seated interpersonal conflicts. I developed what at that time was a somewhat controversial approach, Party-Directed Mediation (PDM). In essence, it involves pre-caucuses with the parties and eventually bringing them together into a joint session where the mediator sits thirteen or so feet away. The idea was to underscore the fact that they were there to speak to each other with minimal interference from the third party (for those who are interested, the methodology is detailed in the third edition of my book, Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue Between Individuals, a free download as a public service of the University of California).
Around 2003, I read Carl Rogers’ seminal work, Client-Centered Therapy, which had a profound effect on my listening approach. For the next 17 years I would credit Carl Rogers for the listening approach in my books, articles, and workshops. I explained that Rogers taught two different types of listening: active listening and empathic listening. The first being especially useful to deal with our own conflicts while the second, perfect for listening to the parties who were seeking mediation.
I retired as an emeritus academic of the University of California in 2014 and continued to offer workshops and seminars after returning to Chile, the country of my birth. In mid-2020 I was invited by the Fundación Creo Familia (a play on words on creating and believing in family) to be the director of their mediation efforts. My job was to train and form mediators using the PDM approach. Among the students we had participants who were psychologists and therapists.
Over the years I had received numerous comments about how unique the listening approach was. Many individuals in the helping professionals at first reacted with unbelief and resistance to the method. And then embraced it with much excitement. This was the case again with my students in mid-2020. “I am a therapist,” was a typical comment, “And I find it really difficult to transition to this new approach.”
I grew increasingly tired of these remarks, so I decided to go beyond Client-Centered Therapy and began to listen to the various recordings of therapeutic interviews between Carl Rogers and his clients. I tried to read everything Rogers I could get my hands on. And I realized that my students were right all along. Rogers shows empathy through his empathic reflections. I showed empathy by my empathic silence. Rogers constantly interrupted his clients to show them that he was accompanying them in their journey into the deepest recesses of their thinking. I did the same by not interrupting their pauses and through an empathic countenance encouraging them to take their time to think and to share as they were ready to do so.
It is not that Carl Rogers was incapable of respecting pauses. Rogers was not afraid of silence, but he rarely used it to advantage. Instead, Carl felt compelled to actively reflect what his clients where feeling. When a person begins to really feel understood, she goes into her own world and breaks eye contact with the mediator or therapist. Most often, the individual looks downwards when they have entered this deep moment of reflection. At first people begin to speak very quickly as they share those things that they know well, but in time they speak slower with an increasing number and depth of these pauses.
What I noticed is that Carl Rogers had no trouble getting people into this deep thinking. But he continually interrupted their thoughts to offer these empathic reflections. I have called my approach the Non-Directive Empathic Listening method. In it, the party who needs to vent realizes that the listener or mediator is there for them. Just as we offer a person a chair to indicate that we have time to listen to them, by not interrupting the speaker even when they pause, we offer them a psychological chair. What is most interesting is that after these pauses individuals say things that are particularly transformative.
In the end, both methods achieve the same results: an individual who feels understood. But more importantly, an individual who begins to understand himself. Additional research will have to be carried out, but I wonder if the Non-Directive Empathic Approach achieves equivalent results in a shorter period of time. In mediation, this is imperative because an individual who is able to hear herself begins to discern how she may have also contributed to the dispute.
One of the stories I tell in my book, is of a young woman who is being videorecorded, telling her side of the conflict with her supervisor, while one of my less experienced students is listening (for the full transcription see Chapter 14 of the book). The student does quite well at first and does not interrupt. At some point, however, she becomes uncomfortable and impatient in her listening role. After the very long session is over, I asked the young woman about her experience. She responded, “At some point the listener got bored of what I was tell her, but then I saw you behind the video camera, you seemed so interested, that I continued.”
I had no idea that my face was inviting her to speak. It is interesting that in all types of listening the speaker can tell if the listener is truly interested. But to me, it was particularly noteworthy that our empathic expressions give such forceful signals. A fellow mediator could not believe that a person could speak for more than an hour without being interrupted. With the party’s permission, I invited her to attend a pre-caucus. After half an hour I interrupted the man who was speaking to ask my colleague. This individual has shared his feelings with us for half an hour. Do you suppose he has more to say and could easily speak another half hour or more? My colleague quickly consented.
The compete peer-reviewed paper on how I discovered that all these years I had been crediting Rogers for an approach he did not use or teach may be found in the latest issue of Revista de Mediación(Volume 13, 2nd issue, 2020, https://revistademediacion.com/en/articulos/towards-non-directive-empathic-listening/).
I just published the 6th edition of my book in Spanish, Mediación Interpersonal: Facilitando el diálogo entre las partes, which is also downloadable from the University of California (http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/agro-laboral/7conflicto/Med_Interpersonal.pdf). The third edition of the book in English is not as up-to-date (http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7conflict/PartyDirMediation.pdf ), but the Non-Directive Empathic Listening approach is described with very few differences to what it is today, except that it still retains the reference to Carl Rogers.
I will forever be indebted to Carl Rogers and to his book Client-Centered Therapy.
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