The most important (and rarely used) communication tool

Posted on May 19, 2010

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Several weeks ago, while on Facebook, I noticed a status update from a girl I went to high school with stating how hurt and disappointed she was. She and her fiance decided not to invite children to their wedding and some of her guests were declining their invitations because of this.

Her post had over 25 replies. Not ONE of them was an empathetic response.

Sure, people tried being supportive. Some wrote: Forget those jerks! or You don’t want people like that at your wedding anyway! Others tried to get her to see things from the side of the declining guests: It’s hard to find a sitter! or They probably want to come but feel their children are too little to leave at home.

This poor girl wrote back something along the lines of: Thank you but it’s just, I’m so hurt. This is my wedding day.

To which she received more responses rebuking the declining guests and more explanations about why people may decide not to attend a wedding where children were not allowed.

My hunch is that this young woman was intelligent enough to understand the reasons people were declining her invitation. She didn’t need people putting down those she loved and had invited to her wedding. She didn’t need people telling her the complexities of finding a babysitter. What she needed was EMPATHY.

Most of us, I would venture to say the majority of us, were not taught how to listen empathetically. Yet this ONE tool can transform ANY relationship (and I don’t just mean romantic ones, either). In fact, the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk shows readers how to use this skill to communicate better and more effectively with children and teenagers.

I’m not sure why more emphasis is not placed on empathetic listening in our culture. I was never taught this kind of listening when I was teacher (and I went to hundreds of workshops). I was never taught this kind of thing in any self-improvement class I’ve taken and I certainly was never trained this way when I went to conferences on improving business skills.

I learned this from another life coach, who learned it when she was learning about conflict resolution. Whenever I had a conversation with this coach, I felt understood and deeply heard. So I asked her to teach me everything she knew about empathetic listening.

I started using this technique in my coaching sessions and in my relationships. And I’ve never looked back since. Empathy can change even the most difficult relationships and can even greatly improve the already good ones.

Imagine this for a moment:  You are talking to someone about something that is bothering you.

Perhaps this person starts listing solutions to your problem. Thing is, you DON’T need solutions-you’re a smart cookie and can figure out solutions by yourself.

Or maybe this person starts criticizing someone else-some one who is somehow related to your problem. Now you’re in a negative exchange, which doesn’t feel good.

Or maybe they start explaining things from the other person’s point of view. But you already KNOW the other person’s point of view or at least could imagine it.

You walk away from conversations like this feeling a) unheard at best or b) invalidated at worst. What you needed, in that moment, was empathy.

Now imagine you voice your problem to someone who can listen with empathy. They a) listen completely to what you are saying b) reflect your feelings back to you and c) give you empathy for your feelings. You walk away from conversations like this feeling heard. And isn’t that the whole point of having a conversation? To hear and be heard?

Yeah, it’s simple. But since most of us did not grow up learning this, we are not used to giving it to others. (Actually, I think we knew this as children and were encouraged to unlearn it with adult logic). So here, in a few simple steps, is how to listen with empathy: *

1. Be present and listen to what is being said.

To do this, you have to pay attention not just to the words being spoken, but to the tone used, body language and eye contact you notice. If you’re too busy thinking about what YOU are going to say next, or stressing about your bills, or thinking about the cute guy you just saw walk by, then you are not present and you are not really listening.

2. Reflect back the emotions you hear being expressed.

Telling someone the emotion you hear them expressing makes the other person feel heard. However, you need to use your common sense with this one. A lot of children need to hear the exact emotion they are feeling because they don’t have the vocabulary yet to express themselves. Do the same thing to teenagers and adults, however, and you come across as being diminishing. (One time I did this to a teenager when I first learned how to listen with empathy. She walked into the room, totally pissed about something. I said,”You are angry!” and her response was a sarcastic “Oh, you think so?!?”)

So it’s a good idea to learn how to reflect in an appropriate way according to the person with whom you are speaking. For example, if a child is expressing anger, you can say something like, “You are angry!” If a teenager or adult is expressing anger, you can say something like, “I can tell you are really angry about this.”

3. Give the other person empathy.

For this step, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and state what you imagine they are going through.  No, giving empathy does not mean that you agree with the other person or that you are going to do what they are asking of you. It’s purpose is to show the other person that you understand and hear their feelings.

Now, try to listen to one person empathetically today and see what happens. It’s an incredible tool! If you want more information and resources, you can click on the links I’ve included in this post. Teachempathy.com has some nice stuff as well.

*Although I advocate empathy for almost every interaction, there are some people with whom empathy is not the most effective way to communicate. I’ll discuss this more in my next post.

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