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Negotiation Tip: Learn to become an active listener

April 13, 2011

One of the hardest working skills that new mediators must learn is simply to listen. More importantly, to actively listen.

I also believe that it is a critical skill to learn and develop for those who simply wish to become better at negotiation, in mediation or pre or post mediation.

It is a harder skill to perfect than one might suspect. And, it is even harder for lawyer-advocates who hone their skills, not in listening, but telling.

Think about it. Have you ever attended a seminar for trial advocacy that emphasized listening? (Perhaps they should, particularly in listening more carefully to responses to questions in deposition and at trial.) In fact, however, the advocate-lawyer’s training is weighed almost totally toward the telling of the story, the telling of a fact, the argument/telling of the law or fact of that advocate’s position.

But as a mediating participant or in any negotiation, it would bode well for the advocate to “check his guns at the door”, put on a different hat, and begin to just actively listen.

What do I mean by active listening? Just that, listening with as much active enthusiasm as with your advocacy. As an alternative technique, rather than trying to convince your opponent of your position, actively trying to fully grasp and understand every possible nuance of the speaker.

Active listening begins with pre-mediation conferences with the opposition, extends into opening statements of any mediation, and continues through direct and indirect contacts with your opposition during the negotiation process.

And, it includes close listening to your mediator.

Active listening means hearing every word that is uttered, not just the central theme of a statement. Often the modifying words in preamble or trailing a statement are far more meaningful than the apparent meaning of any central theme of the statement.

Active listening also includes awareness and appraisal of the body language of the speaker. It is difficult for a person to tell un-truths while looking you directly in the eye. (Caution: Difficult, not impossible.) A person’s posture often conveys his conviction or lack of conviction far more than their words.

Another related skill you must develop to be an active listener is in the precise questioning you use to obtain the answer for your active listening. In short, you must encourage your opponent by proper questions to speak so that you can actively listen. In your negotiation, therefore, you must plan carefully the questions you seek to have heard as much as the answers you intend to give to the questions you are anticipating.

And you can practice the rudiments of this skill very easily at home.

The next time you significant-other asks “how was your day?” try responding with, “how was yours”? Chances are that is what this important person really wanted to hear: that you care more about listening to them than telling them anything.

And, then you may quickly earn a very practical reward for becoming an active listener.

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