ADR, Family

Lost art of listening is essential to problem-solving

In a society obsessed with self-image and sharing on social media, many individuals have forgotten the simple act of listening, says Oakville family lawyer and mediator Cathryn Paul.

“I often see it in negotiations and mediation,” Paul tells “A client will share their point of view, and the other person is sitting there and they’re not listening. If anything, they’re coming up with how to respond or dispute what’s being said.”

Listening is an essential skill in dispute resolution, says Paul, who practises under Cathryn L. Paul, Lawyer, Mediator, Arbitrator. And it is not just about sitting quietly.

“It's about looking at every issue from the other person’s point of view,” she says. For example, if a parent wants to enrol the children in private school, the other spouse should try to hear why that’s important to that parent, rather than immediately arguing against it.

“Listening is about not rushing to judgment, and not putting the problem in your own context, but digging deep and exploring thoughts and concerns,” Paul says. “That opens up options for problem-solving, and the realization there may be common ground.”

Listening may appear to be a simple skill, but it can be difficult between separating spouses who are experiencing a range of emotions and perhaps don’t communicate well to begin with, Paul says.

“Many times, people say one thing, but there is an underlying need that isn’t being vocalized,” she says. “If you’re really involved in the dispute and can’t step aside, it can be hard to understand what the underlying needs are.”

As a mediator, Paul conducts individual sessions before mediation takes place. Through that process, she listens to each person’s story.

“The aim is to determine what their underlying needs and goals are and what they need to walk away from mediation and feel as though it’s been successful,” she says. “That can be much easier one-on-one than if there are competing dynamics at the table.”

For example, Paul may hear from one spouse that they believed life was heading in a certain direction when the separation was suddenly sprung upon them. The conversation may lead her to understand that the underlying stress is the fear of the unknown.

“It can be something that is difficult for the other person to hear,” Paul says. “They may hear it in a context of ‘They’re trying to make me feel guilty.’ ”

However, when Paul helps clients communicate through mediation, she says it’s important for them to learn to listen, with their entire being — hearing not only words but watching body language.

Part of this is accomplished through modelling good listening behaviour, Paul adds. Active listening, which may involve rephrasing or reframing what has been said, is important she says.

“If I engage with one of the partners in that kind of dialogue, and the other person is in the room, they're hearing it in a different way,” Paul says.

For example, if one spouse says they are upset about what the other partner has done in ending the marriage, because their life has changed, they have no idea what the future holds, and they don’t want to be on the street. Paul may reflect the concern back in a neutral way, by saying “I hear that you are worried about the future, and that it is important to you to come up with a plan.” This message can be better heard from Paul because it does not carry emotional baggage and pain between them the parties, and focuses on how to move forward, she says.

“Sometimes the parties struggle in finding common ground, but the mediation becomes a process where people dig a little deeper, find better ways to communicate, express their needs and move forward in some way.”

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