By Samriti Ahuja
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”
– Roger Ebert
Oxford dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. In simple words, empathy means imagining oneself in the situation of another thus it is trying to understand the feelings of people. This practice will undoubtedly make the world a better place to live in as everyone in the present day and age needs to be more empathetic, instead of being judgmental and indignant towards one another. We all yearn for, our perspective and feelings to be understood, then why do we forget to do the same for others? Surely, empathy is not an easy art to master but with time and patience, it can be acquired.
It is important to acknowledge that without empathising, our relationships, whether personal or professional, tend to deteriorate. Research shows that greater empathy leads to more helping behavior. Interestingly, empathy has now become an ethical issue. It is also a great tool for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) since a mediator or negotiator needs to know the mental state and sufferings of the parties and what they are going through. During a mediation session, both the parties are usually emotionally invested in the dispute and are unwilling to accept and understand another person’s side of the story. This is where the role of an empathetic neutral person comes into play, where, by listening and understanding each sides perspective, they try to break the ice. When parties feel that they are being heard rather than being judged, they start to cool down and the personal accounts become less exaggerated, closer to reality. It is now a known fact that being cut off from the emotional side of a person is not a good way of negotiating, thus having an emotional quotient makes a great deal of difference in being a successful mediator or negotiator. However, at the same time, being too involved with someone else’s account and behavior is also not a good idea. It may weigh down the mediator because when one gets emotionally invested, it affects their discretion and neutrality. Therefore, a balance needs to be struck and empathy exercised within limited boundaries.
Jonathon Chace, an Associate Director at the U.S. Community Relations Service, tells about a highly charged community race-related conflict that happened more than 30 years ago where he was a mediator. The dispute involved the construction of a highway that would physically divide a community centered around a public housing project. After weeks of protest activity, the parties agreed to mediation. In the end, the public official’s decision prevailed and the aggrieved community got relief. When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator’s hand and thanked him for being “different from the others.” “How was I different?” Chace asked. “You listened,” was the reply. “You were the only one who cared about what we were saying!” Thus, if a mediator is an empathetic listener i.e., a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust, it helps him/her respond promptly after understanding the situation, which is essential for a successful mediation. Alongside this, it helps build respect, enables the party to release or convey their emotions, reduce tensions, encourage the surfacing of information, and create a safe environment which is conducive to collaborative problem-solving. This quality of mediator can differentiate him from other mediators for all the good reasons.
Before starting with the empathetic listening of a mediator, it is advisable that a mediator follows ‘purifying process’ of emotionally distraught parties. Lyman S. Steil, former president of the American Listening Association says that it is necessary to engage parties in a cathartic process. He defines catharsis as “the process of releasing emotion, the ventilation of feelings, the sharing of problems or frustrations with an empathic listener”, and in his opinion, it is important as it tends to clear a person’s mind. The parties or person in distress might directly or indirectly give clues about the problem and a good listener should be able to catch those clues. Therefore, this purifying process is necessary for the maximized success of a mediation. Conventionally, in circumstances of conflicting interests, the adjudicating parties get disrespectful, close-minded, often irritated and frustrated towards each other. But, if they find a mediator who is an empathetic listener and follows the purifying process, parties might even listen and understand ‘each-other’ in a better way. Therefore, listening is an important quality that contributes to the making of a good mediator and also for people in general who wish to lead a peaceful life. It is crucial to differentiate between listening and hearing as these two concepts are likely to be confused with one another.
Being an empathetic listener would aid mediators in their professional careers. Certain characteristics that help in becoming a better empathetic listener are: being attentive to what the parties say; indicate that you are listening by not interrupting, not giving advice and not asking many questions; by not presuming facts and not forming opinions about the conflict or the party.
Samriti Ahuja is a 2nd-year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School.
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