A primer on Empathic Listening

“You don’t understand me.”

Have you ever felt this way? Misunderstood? It happens often in our places of work, in our relationships or at our homes where most of day to day interactions lack deeper sense of connection, understanding, emotional identification, compassion or feel.

In fact very few of us are confident that people they live with or work with can testify that they are good listeners- whether in routine conversations or in very tense situations. Instead of listening to what the other person has to say, we may find ourselves contemplating our next reply. As a result, the other person feels misunderstood and neglected. The hard truth is that few interactions qualify as perfectly empathetic. According to Dr. Bookbinder:

“Only 2% of interactions include acknowledgement of the other, the foundation of all human interactions.”

To understand the other person, you not only need to listen actively but also emphatically. Perfecting the art of emphatic listening is not easy. You may get sloppy if you don’t try hard or get derailed when tense situations show up. The question is how can we listen emphatically?

Look like you are listening, do not interrupt

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You have to look like you are listening. It is not enough to religiously follow the traditional rules for active listening- taking notes, throwing in occasional murmured uh-uh or head-nodding.

Show compassion.
Establish real emotional connection with the other person.
Give the other person time to speak out and express themselves fully.
Make eye contact. Pay full attention to what the other person says.
Where you don’t understand, ask for clarification.

If someone is talking about empathic listening, you could say something like “Just to make sure whether what I heard is right, did you mean that most interactions usually lack the element of empathy?”

However, before interrupting your partner, ask yourself whether you really want to ‘get it’, or are you reasserting control or just showing off.

“You said you understand the complexities involved in dispute resolutions. From my assessment, you don’t seem to have come across subjects X, Y and Z you claim to understand.”

That’s a totally off-the-wall remark. To show the other person that you understand them, you could say:

“I’m interested in what you are saying and categorically so on subjects X, Y and Z. Last year on a seminar, a certain speaker talked about the same subjects. This is what he said about them…”

The other person will have nothing but to voice his agreement: “That was so powerful.”

Ask questions that stoke the conversation. You won’t want the other person to feel attacked. They will become defensive and the communication will hit a dead end.

Listen carefully and repeat what you’ve heard.

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Listen carefully and echo what you heard. Echoing what someone has said shows the other person that you are listening.

When your partner hears what has been echoed, they can pinpoint what is right or wrong. Then they are able to repeat the important stuff they had left out. Echoes take a form of conditional language like “It sounds like most of the people in this meeting probably feel that….”, “Let me see if I’ve heard you right….” or “I wonder if some of what my colleagues are saying means that…”

When your son performs poorly in class, as his parent you may demand an explanation from him. “Our tutor is hard-headed. He doesn’t like me and my friends and always makes sure to give us a detention every day. We just can’t perform in this school.”

After a moment of listening, you skilfully echo what you’ve heard. “I wonder if what I’ve heard from you means that you don’t get along well with your tutor. Does that mean your performance in class can be attributed to that?”

If your boy doesn’t feel that way, he may offer to give additional information. Empathise with their situation. Never say something accusatory like “You are hard-headed and that is why you have issues with your tutors. That’s why you can’t perform better.” It will kill the conversation.

 

Ask questions.

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Asking questions is more assertive than echoing. Questions enable you to probe more.

Ask questions that open up the conversation, otherwise you risk shutting the communication down.

“I’ve realized you may not be comfortable with my suggestions regarding how we will be servicing the mortgage. I can’t claim to understand the finer details about mortgages too. Can you tell me what your feelings are regarding the issue?”

Questions like “Let me see whether I got what you said. Do you mean your current job doesn’t satisfy you?” are more engaging and less intrusive. Open-ended questions are safer as they are less intrusive and tend to elicit more honest information “How did that incidence make you feel?” is a lot less intrusive than “did that incident offend you it?”

Tips for setting up an empathetic mood

  • Let the other person feel less obliged to answer the question.
  • Give an impression of honest curiosity in your questions.
  • Some questions can feel weird, out-of -place, or utterly intrusive.
  • When the other person feels that you are just curious and not intrusive, you encourage them to tell you more and more

Employ the “yes, and” strategy

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Try finding areas or points to agree with the other person and to add.

Focus on the other persons’ feelings and line of thoughts. Don’t be a blank screen-the other person wants to know what you feel or think.

In most interactions, it important that you agree with specific things your partner is saying. The other person might have issues with a certain product.

When he she says, “I think I’ll stop using dog shampoos on Tommy. They are not quite effective in relieving him of allergies.”

To voice your agreement, you could say, “ I agree with you most dog shampoos can really disappoint. I have personally had issues with the shampoos to the point of giving up on them.”

You may add,

“My friend suggested shampoo X and it is doing a good job so far. You can try it.”

This strategy is also useful in a corporate space. After listening to employee’s grievances the employer may remark:

“I really could not agree more with what you have just said. I strongly resonated with you when you said that given your experience and the value you brought to our firm, we should consider you for a salary increment. However, it is imperative to note that the firm is also struggling financially. When the situation improves, we will definitely consider you for an increment.”

Always look for valid points the other person has raised and stress them or add few useful points to them.

 

Don’t shy away from expressing your disagreement.

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Agree with the other person where you ought to. However, if you have a different opinion, don’t shy away from expressing it.

You have your own opinion and feelings too. Establish yourself as an authentic person. Make a wise use of “yes butting” to express your disagreement.

Your daughter wants more and more of junk food. You know it is not good for her health.

When she says: “Mom, the cheetos were delicious. Why can’t we buy more?”

You don’t want to hurt her, yet you don’t want to budge to her demands.

“I know you want more cheetos and bagel bites, Andrea, because it tastes good, but you have already had four pieces and I’m really worried it can upset your blood sugar balance.”

Before you voice your disagreement, show that you agree with them. Remember it is hard to convince people that what they strongly believe as true is stupid or wrong, if you don’t agree with them.

Learn the art of deflection.

 

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In a case where you want to avoid sounding too intrusive, using deflective tactics can be very essential.

Instead of telling the other person how “you” must feel, you should deflect the message as much as possible to make it acceptable.The tenderer the content, the more deflection is needed. Deflection helps you to approach a tender topic with the other person without provoking denial.

Your friend tells you about their debilitating health condition that may make them lose their jobs.

“Job, last week I was diagnosed with clinical depression. What I thought was a normal hormonal imbalance is a different debilitating monster. I’m worried.”

Your indifferent reply: “I’m sure you’re not only worried about your health. You’re afraid you may lose your job too.”

Such a statement can hurt the other person, given their situation. To make the statement more comfortable, you could deflect it as “I was in a situation like this last year. What worried me even more than the health effect was losing my job”

You could even use a more deflected statement:

“Some people in a situation like this would probably be worried about losing their jobs.”

However, you should avoid deflecting all the questions because deflected statements, unlike direct statements, are less clear and not powerful.

Avoid arousing your partner’s feelings of fraudulence.

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Some people feel like they are a fraud.

They spend a lot of time feeling like imposters about whatever trait they value most highly in themselves. They think that everyone around knows it.

A newly employed staff might have oversold himself during the interview. So once he gets to his station, he feels challenged while executing some tasks. To get things going, he may decide to consult with a colleague.

“Do you know a workaround for this? I have been having trouble doing so and so for the last few days. I just can’t figure out how to do it.”

An insensitive colleague may remark, “You said you were good at doing that. Seems sometimes we never know what someone is fully capable of doing until we engage them. This is how we do it…”

Such a remark makes the other person feel exposed-much of a fraud. The colleague should have responded more emphatically.

“Gaining momentum in your new job can be hectic. I also used to find the task hard when I joined this company. This is what I used to do then…I think it can help you too.”

The latter statement shows the other person that you empathize with their situation. That they will be able to do the job well once they learn a few things here and there. Making someone feel like a fraud will make them develop resistance and close themselves out of any further talk.

Get it right.

Empathic listening does not mean making people feel that you know them better than they want to be known. Empathic listening stimulates the other person to feel like they are being understood, cared for and respected. Reveal your vulnerability to make the other person feel comfortable. Ask questions. Do not interrupt the other person until they have made all their points. Yes, do not be mean. Don’t just be the one on the receiving end of niceties. Give the other person the psychological hug they need so much. It is very imperative that we seek to fully understand and connect with the other person in our day to day interactions.

Do you know of other ways we can achieve that?

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