AACES is a mnemonic used by Conflict Resolution Programs, a division of the Center for Human Development in Pleasanton, California, to train new mediators in active listening. I have helped to train new mediators in this program and I volunteer through the program to mediate guardianship of minors disputes.
It occurred to me that the skills we teach to these new mediators are also skills that would be useful for couples in divorce mediations and lawyers in civil litigation mediations in which joint sessions are held.
Here’s the mnemonic:
A = Attitude
A = Acknowledge
C = Clarify
E = Empathize
S = Summarize
Attitude is the first step in mediation preparation. It’s how you prepare yourself (and your client) for the mediation. It’s often helpful to be respectful (Rule of Reciprocity) and open-minded (hey, you might learn something you don’t already know).
Acknowledge requires showing the other side that you are listening. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can show that you’re interested in what they are saying. Simple ways to acknowledge include good eye contact, nodding your head, leaning forward then they are speaking, etc.
Clarify means asking the kind of questions that will elicit open ended answers. Be curious. Try saying, “Tell me more.”
Empathize by showing people you are willing to meet them on an emotional level, letting them know that you “get” them. You can say things like, “It sounds like this must be hard for you.” Or , “It seems like you’re feeling [name the emotion]. Stuart Diamond, a Professor of Negotiation at The Wharton School of Business and author of Getting More, calls these interventions “emotional payments.” One of their side benefits is that they are calming.
Summarizing not only makes sure you understand the other person’s view, it also lets them know that you have really been listening. By summarizing, then asking, “Did I get that right?” you are showing the other side that you’ve listened and you are inviting them to let you know if you’ve missed anything. This also will calm down emotion in negotiation.
Persuasion can only take place if the other side is ready to listen to you. By listening first, you’ve set the table.
By the way, if you’re skeptical about whether these active listening skills actually work, try them out on a loved one. Let me know how that conversation turns out.
(If you're a mediator, sign up for this program! It is very rewarding.)