After “I Love You” I believe the next three most important words in the English language are “Tell Me About…” These are the words of a true listener, a preface coming from a person willing to open up their ears and their minds to your story, to accept you and what you have to say, without judgment. They are words of acceptance. They invite communication, offer a promise that you will be heard.
I have arrived at this belief gradually, over many years as a volunteer mediator with a local community mediation service. When I completed my first mediation course in 1991, I came home filled with great enthusiasm about the listening skills we had been taught, anxious to practice on my family. I had learned how to actively listen by maintaining eye contact with the speaker, nodding affirmatively as a way of showing understanding, using a body posture of openness (no folded arms) and asking neutral questions aimed at bringing out their tale of conflict. This is part of the mediator’s skill, to listen and let the parties in conflict tell their story. The three magic words, “tell me about….” proved effective in opening the door to that telling.
My two teenage daughters were soon astounded to find out that Dad was willing to listen, really listen, to them, not make judgments about whatever they had done that I would formerly criticize. “Tell me about your date with Eric last night.” “Tell me about those three earrings in your left ear.” “Tell me about the new color(s) of your hair.” When they soon learned that my inquiry was being done honestly and with true interest, and that they would be truly listened to in a non-judgmental way (as much as a parent can listen to a child in a non-judgmental way) they were willing to open up.
Whereas these subjects would previously, sometimes, end a family dinner short of desert in a fit of angst, (“Three earrings? What are you thinking about???) the fact that I was now interested in honestly listening to their stories, truly changed our relationships. This family experience validated for me the power of active listening. Some wonderful and open creative discussions ensued and I believe family ties were strengthened.
The experience poured over into other communications, with friends, clients, and in the mediation process. I learned of the immense power of active listening, which is reflected in the need of the people in our lives to be heard. Adapting the use of the opening, “tell me about…” proved to be an effective tool for promoting effective communications.
As a mediator, sitting between people in conflict, neighbors fighting over fences, or barking dogs, landlords arguing with tenants about unpaid rent, husbands and wives trying to end a marriage in a way that minimizes the financial damage, or families fighting over the estate of a deceased parent, asking each party to “tell me about…” their story of the conflict opens the doors to resolution. They understand they can speak freely without being judged, that they will be heard, and that they will be able to hear the other party tell their story. Their conflict gets softened in the story-telling process. Moreover, these humans- in -conflict learn the value of these listening skills and their power in their own lives.
I believe parties in conflict, whether individuals, or nations, have a need to be truly heard, and when the listener communicates their willingness to listen, “tell me about…..” the door to constructive mutually beneficial conflict resolution is opened.
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