November 25, 2014

Listening: You’re Doing it Wrong

175485913There’s an old saying that goes: “because God gave you two ears and only one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you talk” which, as far as it goes, is fairly good advice for most situations. The problem is that listening, even in the best of circumstances, is really hard to do; emotions, assumptions, interpretations, distractions, and the myriad of other things that vie for our attention make it far easier to hear rather than to listen. Add in the tension of divorce and the temptation to let just hearing suffice is almost overwhelming.

Yet, if you really want to get the most from your Collaborative Divorce just hearing – that is simply acknowledging and reacting to the sounds emanating from the person sitting opposite you – won’t do the job. To craft your best possible future, you have to listen.

So, start with an open mind. It is far easier to listen when your mind is not otherwise preoccupied and you have far better things to do with your emotional energy than to spending mentally judging or criticizing the things the other person is saying. It is far easier to stay in a receptive frame of mind if you can keep from jumping to conclusions and completing sentences for the speaker; be patient – the speaker is doing their best to communicate their thoughts and feelings and you might miss something important if you leap before they finish.

Now that you’ve started listening, be relaxed but attentive. You don’t have to lock eyeballs with the speaker and stare at them consistently while they talk, but it does help to be present, to pay attention, and to provide them with a modicum of courtesy. So, turn to face the speaker and put aside those distractions – turn off your phone, close that book, put down those papers – and begin to listen. Think about what the person is saying, not about what your reply will be – you can’t rehearse and listen at the same time; besides if you are rehearsing rather than listening you could miss something important.

Because we all think, speak, and process information at different rates there are ebbs and flows in conversations and for listening to occur we need to accept the fact that it is OK for silence to exist. Silence gives us time to process information, to gather our thoughts together, to relax and become comfortable with the pace of the conversation. Even if you have a brilliant solution to the situation at hand, don’t interrupt; let silence be for a while – the speaker might not be finished or the rest of your Collaborative team might still be processing what the speaker has said.

Finally, listening is about more than simply paying attention to what is said, it is about paying attention to what isn’t said as well. What are the speaker’s non-verbal cues telling you? What are your non-verbal cues telling the speaker? In a face-to-face conversation, words communicate far less than do nonverbal cues. A speaker can communicate things like sadness, excitement, engagement, irritation or frustration without saying a word and one does not need words to let a speaker know that you are really listening to them or just simply hearing what they have to say.

Bruce Cameron
Attorney, Cameron Law, PLLC

Bruce Cameron, JD, MS is a second career attorney, practicing Quaker, and advocate for small town law practices. His solo practice focuses exclusively on collaborative law and mediation with just a soup├žon of estate planning for excitement. Bruce believes that alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, like collaborative law and mediation, are powerful positive means to reduce the destructive conflict typical of litigation. He has found that a little peacemaking tends to produce better outcomes for his clients. Learn more at

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