In post # 15 we noted the importance of reflecting skills for achieving active and effective listening in lockdown. When we enact reflecting skills we give feedback to the person we are communicating with about our understanding of their message. We can do this, for example, by summarising accurately facts, feelings and interests, by asking empathic questions and by using particular verbal cues. Another important way to provide feedback that we are understanding messages being communicated to us is to acknowledge the facts, feelings and interests present in the message. Mediators use acknowledgement consistently throughout the facilitation of a mediation session.
Acknowledgement is one of the five elements of LARSQ – which stands for listening, acknowledging, reframing, summarising and questioning. This post focuses on the importance of acknowledgement for effective communication and for the prevention, management and resolution of disputes in lockdown.
Acknowledgement is an important part of communication because it is critical to human engagement and attention. When a person’s emotions, needs, interests, fears and priorities are acknowledged they feel heard and recognised, they feel understood (even if not agreed with) and they feel as though what they are experiencing matters and is valued. When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to cooperate, collaborate and engage in constructive problem-solving. This is why acknowledgement is a critical key to preventing, managing and resolving disputes in lockdown.
It isn’t hard to show acknowledgement, however it can be easy to forget to acknowledge the person we are communicating with. We discussed reflective listening verbal cues as acknowledgement in post #15. We can use phrases such as ‘It sounds as though that’s been a difficult time for you?’ ‘What you are saying is that you feel a strong sense of frustration about the situation?’. Or ‘It sounds like the main priority for you is …?’. We can also do something as simple as nodding our head or offering words of acknowledgement from our attending skills set: for example, ‘I see …’, ‘Uhuh …’, ‘Yes …’, ‘Oh really?’. Reframing, summarising and asking empathetic questions are additional ways to achieve acknowledgement (we discuss these skills in coming posts).
In a mediation, a mediator acknowledges each of the parties and also encourages the parties to acknowledge each other. When we don’t have a mediator present to help us in our homes and virtual offices in lockdown, we have to use our dispute resolution agency to reflect on the situation and experience of the person we are communicating with and recognise that experience. Engaging our capacity to acknowledge others requires (at least) 2 things. First, a willingness to acknowledge and engage with emotions; and second, we need to be able to empathise with others.
Michal Alberstein in an article entitled ‘Forms of Mediation and Law: Cultures of Dispute Resolution’ published in 2006 (cited below) noted that an emphasis on recognising, and allowing the expression of, emotions is a unique characteristic of mediation. Emotions are rarely acknowledged, for example, in adversarial processes like litigation. It is part of the art of mediation to be able to acknowledge emotion in a controlled way, so that the expression and recognition of emotion brings relief and enhances the quality of communications, as opposed to disrupting and damaging communications.
Albertsein says that emotions are an ‘integral part of the conflict picture’, they are important sources of information, and they have a rational level which supports parties in developing their understanding of each other. Bush and Folger have famously said that ‘there are facts in the feelings’. Fisher writing with Shapiro about emotions, has said that emotions can present important positions, needs and interests which cover real concerns that need to be answered and addressed.
In lockdown communications and negotiations, we shouldn’t be afraid of emotions – not of our own emotions nor of the emotions of the person we are communicating with. However, we do need to follow Fisher and Ury’s famous adage of ‘separating the people from the problem’. That is, we need to enact the principle of depersonalization so that emotions are managed constructively.
Professor Kathy Douglas and Dr Clare Coburn published a great article on emotions in mediation in 2014 (cited below). Kathy and Clare are dear friends and colleagues of the ADR Research Network. Kathy is Dean of the Graduate School of Business and Law at RMIT University and was also part of the co-founding cohort of the Network in 2011. Kathy and Clare’s article presents research on emotion in mediation conducted with mediators working with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). In the article they note the importance of an acknowledgement of the emotional impact of conflict on a person because it can result in increased understanding and also self-understanding. That is, when parties hear their own perspective and emotion reflected back to them by a mediator they develop a deeper self-awareness. Kathy and Clare note that it can also assist the other party to hear the emotional perspective of their ‘opponent’ in ways that may deepen their understanding.
I saw the magic of acknowledgement in this way when mediating with Associate Professor Libby Taylor in the Bond Family Dispute Resolution Clinic. Libby and I are co-directors of the clinic in which we both practice as accredited FDRPs. Libby and I are also co-directors of the Bond Dispute Resolution Centre – started by Professor Laurence Boulle and others back in 1989.
Libby and I were mediating a parenting dispute between two separated young parents who had a toddler. They both clearly loved the toddler very much but they were at odds about a number of issues relating to his care and parenting. The father raised a particular concern about the toddler’s nutrition. He felt the mother was not firm enough about ensuring the child ate fruit and vegetables. In the mediation the father was able to express this concern to the mother and his communications indicated he was very angry about the current state of affairs.
We asked the mother to tell the father how hearing this made her feel. She explained to the father that she struggled with getting the toddler to eat fruit and vegetables. She felt as though the father was judging her and saying that she was a bad mother and this made her feel very sad and upset. The father was able to acknowledge this sadness, saying that it wasn’t his intention to make her sad and that he thought she was actually a very good and caring mother – his focus was squarely on being concerned about the child’s best interests in relation to the issue of nutrition. The mother was able to acknowledge his focus and share that her focus was also on the child’s best interests. The young parents were able to exchange their different perspectives.
After extensive discussion, the father apologised saying – ‘I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you about this’. He was able to engage with his own emotions around the issue of nutrition and explained that his own mother had been very strict with him when he was a child – and this was a strong influence in terms of how he looked at the issue of nutrition for children. The mother, knowing her former mother-in-law and her personality, was able to acknowledge that she understood where the father was coming from and that perhaps his own experiences around food in childhood had been difficult. From there Libby and I could begin to help the parents develop a plan about how the toddler’s nutrition could be managed in the different households into the future. The air in the mediation room seemed to clear after these acknowledgements. The parties’ faces seemed relieved and ‘lighter’. Communication on other issues also became easier as a result.
In their article Kathy Douglas and Clare Coburn document some of the empirical research data from interviews with the VCAT mediators. One participant said: ‘Acknowledging [the parties’] emotions is very important … because that’s the very thing that’s been overwritten. If people say [to them], ‘Get a life, get real!’ [That] just shuts people down and they feel that they haven’t been heard. They think: nobody has taken any notice of what I’m trying to say so it’s not very important’ (p.130).
Acknowledgement and empathy
An ability to engage with emotions in lockdown communications and to acknowledge the experience and situation of the person we are communicating with also requires a level of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another, to understand things from their perspective. Empathy extends beyond recognition and understanding of another’s feelings and experience: it acknowledges and values the other person’s fundamental human needs. Having empathy for someone is not the same as agreeing with them. It’s also different from feeling sympathetic or compassionate towards them. Instead, when we are empathetic, we convince the person we are communicating with that we have entered their world of understanding. When we use empathic questions, or reflect back with an empathic acknowledgement, we show the other person that we have made an effort to engage with and comprehend what they have said. Acknowledgement, empathy and recognition between people in communications and negotiations can overcome a crisis in interactions.
As human beings, we all have a basic capacity for empathy, and we are also socialised to extend that capacity because in every culture, even though empathy may manifest in diverse ways, some level of empathy is important to the quality of human relations. In order to harness the communication benefits of empathy, we must be present in our communications with others, paying attention and prepared to engage and connect. Listening empathically means that we are focused on what the other person is saying, observing, feeling, needing and requesting.
We noted above that summarising and paraphrasing are ways in which positive acknowledgement might be made by confirming understanding. If someone asks in a conversation ‘Do you know what I mean?’ we could simply reply ‘Yes I understand’. But if we paraphrase what they have said we can convey a much deeper sense of understanding. In expressing empathy, non-verbal communication aspects (see post #5) such as the tone of our voice, are also important. An authentic reflection of our efforts to consciously listen for and understand the feelings, needs and interests of the person we are communicating with can only be communicated with a sincere tone. Further, it’s always better to ask if we have accurately understood, rather than claim that we have understood.
It is important to distinguish sympathy from empathy. Sympathy involves emphasizing our own emotional experience in response to the emotional experience of the person we are communicating with. Empathy on the other hand, involves a focus on care and attention to the other’s distinct individual experience. Having sympathy involves showing concern, perhaps feeling sorry for the plight of a person; whilst empathy is a much more significant affective response of care and consideration for another person’s emotional experience that facilitates and supports interpersonal connection and therefore effective communication. Importantly, as the young parents experienced in the anecdote above, the reception of adequate empathy will be evident in communications when a release of tension is sensed.
As we noted in post #15, some people are just naturally better communicators than others. Some people are inherently and instinctively able to acknowledge the people they are communicating with throughout their communications. But it doesn’t matter if we aren’t a ‘natural’ at acknowledgements. We can change that by learning to employ the skills and strategies discussed in this post. Again, these challenging times of lockdown demand that we harness our dispute resolution agency in this way.
Tomorrow’s Blog: Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #17: Effective communication strategies in lockdown – reframing.
Joseph P Folger and Robert A Baruch Bush, ‘Transformative Mediation and Third‐Party Intervention: Ten Hallmarks of a Transformative Approach to Practice’ (1996) 13(4) Mediation Quarterly 263.
Daniel L Shapiro, ‘Negotiating Emotions’ (2002) 20 Conflict Resolution Quarterly 67.
Roger Fisher and Daniel L Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions As You Negotiate (Penguin Random House, 2005).
Michal Alberstein, ‘Forms of Mediation and Law: Cultures of Dispute Resolution’ (2006) 22 Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 321.
Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, ‘Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin, 2011).
Kathy Douglas and Clare Coburn, ‘Attitude and Response to Emotion in Dispute Resolution: The Experience of Mediators’ (2014) 16 Flinders Law Journal 111.
Acknowledgement image 1: Alamy
Acknowledgement image 2: RAFREYES
Acknowledging emotions image 1: Developing Minds
Fruit and vegetables image: American Heart Association
Acknowledging emotions image 2: Retail Doctor
Empathy image: Charity Village