In transformative mediation circles, we often speak of ‘listening like a cow’. (See my two previous posts on this quality of attention here and here.) In brief, this simile is referring to the type of listening that is non-judgemental while not being internally busy as to what to say in reply to the talker; it’s about presence and attention to whatever it is that the talker is saying, verbally and non-verbally.
Here’s an excerpt of a wonderful story by Diane Levin of what she describes as “one particularly miraculous mediation”:
Just hours before their meeting with me, the wife called to ask if they could bring their dog with them. “He’s very sweet and well-behaved,” she said, “and I think we’d both feel better if he were there with us.” An animal lover myself, I had no objections and encouraged her to bring the dog along. […] their dog […] curled up in the corner of my conference room with his head on his paws. He didn’t close his eyes but remained watchful, looking from one of his humans to the next.
The mediation began. […] Not surprisingly, the discussion became emotional. First, the wife raised her voice, pressing her case against the husband’s proposal. The dog suddenly stood up from his corner, strode to the wife’s side, sat down beside her and leaned against her, resting his head in her lap. She stroked the dog’s head, and her voice assumed its normal tone. After a few minutes, the dog returned to his corner. Soon it was the husband’s turn to become agitated, and as the volume of his voice began to rise, the dog once more stood up, came to his side, leaned against him, and rested his head in the husband’s lap.
And so it went. Sensitive issues were raised, one spouse or the other became upset, and time and again, there the dog would be, leaning against the person who needed his comfort most in that moment, the great furry head resting upon a knee. The moment would pass, clarity would come, the anger would evaporate, the discussion would progress, and back the dog would go to his corner.
We took up a particularly difficult issue next.
As I was about to speak, I felt something warm and heavy lean against me. I looked down, and there was the dog, his head resting in my lap this time, looking up at me with his dark brown eyes. Evidently this time I was the one who needed support, at least in the judgment of this wise dog.
The husband and wife both stopped in mid-sentence, their voices falling silent. In amazement, they gaped at the dog with his head in my lap. Then, tension broken, they each smiled, shaking their heads. In an instant, the moment had changed. They were laughing now. “How about if we…,” said one. “Great idea,” said the other, “how about if we also…”
A few minutes later, they were standing up and hugging each other, the most difficult issues addressed to their mutual satisfaction. Their dog bounded about the room, his tail wagging.
When seen through the lens of a relational perspective, what happened here was distinctively human. The relational view of human nature sees people balancing needs for individual autonomy with needs for connection to others. The pure act of listening, whether by the trained conflict specialist, or, in this case, the dog, allows the participants to shift from agitation to calmness, to experience differences in how they see themselves and each other. This movement, in turn, allows the participants to move beyond their negative, unproductive interaction to make the decisions they each want to.
You can read Diane’s entire post here.