Vail Daily column: Less talking, more listening
I talk more than I should. It is an ailment borne of my profession and, looking backwards at my development, of my destiny to become a litigator. My mind being a relentless wellspring, the ideas therein need an escape hatch and have found a willing confederate in my mouth. But I very rarely talk to myself. To be heard, to be challenged, to defend my positions, to offer critiques of others’ ideas, to hear other perspectives, I crave all of these conversational dynamics. Yet to become a better speaker, attorney, mediator, writer, husband, father, son, friend, and person, I needed to learn how to better listen. It is a journey that most of us, particularly those embroiled in disputes, would be wise to embark upon.
Communication breakdown is at the heart of almost every conflict. Even if people are technically speaking with each other, that is useless unless both sides are hearing what the other is saying. The ear/brain interface’s recognition of the soundwaves as particular words must be internalized to actually understand and empathize with what is being said. This can be difficult, as we humans tend to speak in code. Depending on the person, “that sounds like a good idea,” can either mean that the idea is a good one or that it is terrible but the utterer is too nice to actually say so. Understanding the speaker and his or her vocal cues and personality is critical. But, of course, that takes time and patience, commodities that are not always in ample supply.
If there is doubt in your mind about the veracity of a statement, then it is better to ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of the matter rather than just assuming that your interpretation of the original utterance is accurate. For a lawyer, this is of chief importance. When a potential client comes into my office for the first time to download the details of their issue, I need to make sure that I am picking up those facts that will inform the strength or weakness of the legal position. Sometimes that means hearing things that are not even said: what is left out of a story may be the most critical detail.
Have a Truly Open Mind
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One of the most important keys to listening is to have a truly open mind. Far too often, we are preparing our response in our heads while our conversation partner talks. Believing ourselves to be better multi-taskers than is actually true, we think we get by with this. But there is no way to pick up every facial tic, eyebrow raise, inflection, or other contextual clue if your brain is postulating a witty rejoinder. If I am already writing my opening statement in my head while my potential client is giving me their version of events, then I am doing neither of us any justice.
As a mediator, listening assumes an even greater urgency. Litigators may be able to bluster their way through a trial, but a mediator who does not hear the laments of the disputants is guaranteed to fail. Mediating conflicts transforms a bilateral conversation into one that is multifaceted. You must listen to and interpret the viewpoints of two or more people and reconcile them together to begin facilitating the discussion about a resolution. A truly great mediator does not come up with the solution, he allows the parties to craft it themselves without even realizing that they are doing so. By listening intently, the mediator can intuit what each party really wants, the strategies or approaches that can work for each side to get to their goal, and how those factors interact with each other to form a workable result for everyone. Too often our mediators, many of whom are retired judges, want to talk about what the solution should be from their perspective. They want to evaluate the case and predict how it might turn out or else just let the parties trade settlement offers. Mediation is a deeper, more personal process. It is about the parties, not about the mediator.
Soliloquy into Dialogue
I have by no means mastered the art of listening, though have made vast improvements. When I get truly excited about a topic, my jaw is flapping at a ridiculous rate and good luck getting a word in edgewise. Self-aware of this predilection, I work to be mindful of the potential sonic assault. I have found that asking questions of others about the specific topic is a way to engage them in my enthusiasm and transform my soliloquy into a dialogue. Less talking, more listening: perhaps our politicians can adopt this mantra.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner/mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, email@example.com or visit http://www.rkv law.com.