“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!”


I am writing this on Burns Night and reflecting on a recent conversation with an acquaintance. I left our meeting feeling deeply unsatisfied. Thinking about it, I realise this was because my acquaintance had spoken for about 85% of the time and had not asked me a single question about myself – or so it felt.

“This is the first time anyone has listened to us in twenty years”. “Nobody has ever acknowledged what we’ve been through.” “Somebody listening to us is really cathartic.” “You were human, nice, kind and honest.” I scribbled down these remarks during a mediation a few months ago. It seems so simple…and yet.

“The government is not listening to us.” “We don’t feel valued.” “It’s not just about the money.” How often do we hear remarks like these in the current wave of industrial action (though perhaps directed more at Westminster politicians than at those in Holyrood, many of whom at least appear to show respect for those with whom they are negotiating)?

In many situations people have been listening of course, but not in a way which makes others feel they have been heard. Really listening is hard work, in whatever role we play. It’s easier to assume we’ve heard it all before, think about our rebuttal, interrupt with our point of view or just switch off. But we need to show we understand another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree. Their viewpoint may be just as valid as ours. Nobody has a complete picture (participants in Core’s courses will recall the four-sided piece of cheese).  And, of course, when we view things from another’s perspective, we may also learn to see ourselves as others see us…

A mediator colleague, Jane Gunn, wrote this about listening:
“To be listened to is to be valued; acknowledged; recognised as an individual – to be truly listened to is to receive a precious gift, to be made to feel special. When we are listening, we are offering the other person the gift of understanding and acceptance, of being taken seriously. Making others feel special is one of the keys to building relationships. In life and business, building relationships results in loyalty, and, in business, loyalty results in increased sales, reduced costs, and building a great brand for your business and for you.”

As a mediator, I know how important it is to listen to people, without preconceptions or judgment – and, even more importantly, to encourage others to do so. I know that, while monetary claims usually have importance, it’s hardly ever “just about the money”. There’s nearly always more.

I encourage use of a formula which works in many situations. I call it “AARREE”. Firstly, it emphasises the importance of Acknowledgment and Acceptance: “I’ve listened hard and acknowledge all that you say and accept that this is how you see things.” Then Recognition and Reassurance: “I recognise that the situation you are in is really difficult for you and those around you and want to reassure you that we shall do everything we can to address these issues.” Follow that with Engagement and Explanation: “I want to explore how to take this forward and work with you in finding a solution. Perhaps I can now explain how we see things from our perspective.”

This seems straightforward and common sense – but “common” sense is often sense uncommonly applied. The key lies in the order: the final E for Explanation comes at the end, after the listener has demonstrated that they have really listened to and placed value on what the other person has said. By contrast, starting with Explanation can seem like justification. Any acknowledgement or recognition, if it comes at all, is then lost in the quest by the other to dismiss, rebut or challenge. Think of everyday politics…

It will be good if government negotiators can continue current talks with a healthy dose of AARREE, not least for those on the front line. No matter how negotiators view the pay claims and whatever constraints they may be under fiscally, it is still possible to treat the unions and dedicated health and other professionals with respect and dignity, to value people, to really listen. We’ll need even more of that in the months ahead.


Listen to John Sturrock’s podcasts on AARREE here.


John Sturrock, The Scotsman, Monday 31 January 2023






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