Listen Others Into Existence

May, 2000

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© 2000 Douglas E. Noll

One of the reasons peace is so hard to find in our lives is because of our "trial lawyer" mentality towards discourse. We rarely listen to each other. Instead, we document, defend, and declare our positions and viewpoints. Our attitude towards others has devolved to a courtroom mentality. We seem to be more intent on "proving" our case than on transforming our conflicts. Even children learn that the goal in any argument is to win.

This "trial lawyer" behavior is sadly predictable. We are bombarded with television shows, books, and films about trials. Cross-examination is considered high drama so we should not be surprised that we emulate aggressive interrogation styles in everyday conversations. Yet cross-examination is not a normal conversational style. Furthermore, the courtroom rules limiting the conduct of cross-examination do not operate in our conversations.

font face="Times New Roman, Times, serif"> We spend so much time preparing our arguments and rebuttals that we do not have time to listen to others. We are so focused on what we will say next that we cannot hear what is being said to us right now. When challenged, we defend by attacking. All of this makes it easier to let others know what we think than to listen to what others are saying.

Why might this be?

First, I don’t think we are listened to enough. Because we do not have the sense that others are paying attention to us, we struggle to assert ourselves in conversations. We force others to "hear" us. Our own need to be recognized causes us to impose ourselves on listeners, which leads to us not listening to others. Our failure to listen leads to others speaking out, which increases our need to be listened to, etc.

Being listened to is wonderful gift because it is an affirmation of our existence. The story is told of a young mother and her boy in a restaurant. The server approached to take orders.

The boy said, "I’ll have a hamburger."

Mother, ignoring the boy, said, "He’ll have a chicken sandwich."

The server looked at the boy and asked, "Will that be with fries?" The boy beamed with joy. That server had just "listened" the young boy into existence. How often do we act like the mother and how infrequently do we "listen" others into existence?

Second, we take on the trial lawyer mantle to protect our identities from attack. Assuming that the best defense is a strong offense, we are quick to justify, explain, and defend. We are very slow to listen, evaluate, and consider what others have to say. Vulnerability is not such a bad thing, however. In tai chi, for example, the softer one is, the stronger one is; the more vulnerable one is, the more power one controls. These paradoxes are difficult to grasp, but are basic truths applicable to relationships.

Finally, we document, defend, and declare to avoid the anxiety arising from life’s ambiguities and uncertainties. If we can "prove" our case, it must be true! Therefore, we eliminate the gray area, resting smugly on the idea that we are the sole custodians of the Truth. Since truth is relative and subjective, our arrogance can embarrass us or worse, lead us into conflict.

As a peacemaker, I concentrate very hard on remembering to listen. I am learning, but still have relapses into my old trial lawyer mode. Learning to listen, to pay attention, while not formulating what I will say next, is difficult work. The effort pays off, however. I was working with two business partners who could not talk to each other and whose acrimonious conflict threatened a 30 year old successful firm. I "listened" them both into existence. Almost miraculously, the hostility and rancor dissipated. They were able, with my guidance, to redefine their relationship in a profitable and satisfying way. Had I used the more traditional legal mediation tactics of focusing on risk, cost, and substantive rights, the outcome would have been much different.

If you seek more peace in your business and personal relationships, try "listening" others into existence. Be that server who ignored Mom and made the little boy come alive. This simple concept is amazingly transformative once you have succeeded with it.

The Way of the Peacemaker: Instead of documenting, defending and declaring your existence, listen others into existence. You will thus fulfill your own need to be recognized.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2000, Douglas E. Noll