Empathic Listening and Emotions

Richard Salem

Former CRS Mediator, Chicago Office; Private Mediator; President of Conflict Management Initiatives


[Full Interview]


Do you want to talk any more about empathy? I know that it is a topic that has concerned you considerably in the past.


Well, it hasn't concerned me, but it's been paramount because my view is what we wrote in our textbook, what we found, what we learned, what we know is how you listen and the ability to listen is extremely important. That means listening, not only to obtain information, but with empathy. To reflect back to the other party is critical. It's critical in dealing with any emotional situation and virtually every civil rights conflict we entered a strong emotional component: anger, rage, disappointment, hurt, fear. To be able to listen with empathy, reflecting back to the party that you understand what they are saying and how they feel about it, not being critical, suspending judgment, not interrupting and those types of behaviors, all learnable skills, are absolutely critical to be consistently effective in this work. I remember John Chase telling me, when he was the regional director in Philadelphia, of a public housing case where the tenants were protesting over the construction of a highway through their neighborhood.

The community got very little satisfaction in this case, but later one of the community leaders came up to John and thanked him, saying, "Since this problem began, you were the only one who listened to what we had to say."

I sort of caught that when John told me that story. So I started collecting stories like this. I have some other instances where mediators have gotten feedback from parties who really didn't get a whole lot out of the mediation, or did, coming back and saying, "At least you listened." Typically, a mediator in a standard conflict is the only one who is going to sit and listen to the whole story. This obviously builds trust, which is critical, and the most important component for the mediator. It opens up a party to talk more, so you get the information that you need because information is what you need in any negotiation. Empathic listening is the most important skill a mediator brings to this work.