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| || || | The use of empathy and listening skills--empathic listening--sometimes leads to good relationships, emotional intimacy, and happy marriages. Their use may also lead to a conversation partner feeling like she or he is receiving a hug--a "psychological hug."
Comparison of Empathy with Sympathy
Because of my observations that many people do not know the differences between empathy and sympathy, I will present my understanding of the subject before continuing my discussion of empathy and listening skills. My presentation will be clarified by the use of an example.
A man is talking about his father's death, which had occurred a week earlier. As he talks about missing his father and his powerful love for him, the man's voice gradually becomes filled with anguish and then he bursts into tears in front of a friend who is listening to him.
If the friend uses sympathy, she might think, for example: He is remembering his father with pain. Poor Roger. If the friend decides to verbalize her thoughts, she might say to the grieving man words such as: "I feel your pain."
If the friend uses empathy, she might think, for example: He is remembering his father with pain and also the pleasure of his love for him. If the friend decides to verbalize her thoughts, she might say to the grieving man words such as: "I feel your pain and also your great love for your father."
This sharing of the painful feelings of another person is characteristic of both sympathy and empathy. However, the person using sympathy would pay more attention to the pain than to the love for the father whereas the person using empathy would pay equal attention to the pain and love.
If the friend added "I'm sorry for your loss," this statement would also be characteristic of sympathy, but not of empathy. The person using empathy would share the grieving man's emotional pain, but not necessarily feel sorry for or pity him. Of course, one can use both sympathy and empathy, for example: "I feel your pain and also your great love for your father. I'm sorry for your loss."
How to be an Empathetic Listener
Many people have a difficult time really listening to someone else. With such a busy life, so much information passes through the brain that being still and listening becomes difficult. Listening is very important in communicating with another, and to really listen and understand, you need to be an empathetic listener. Empathy is an action taken by a person to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to, and to get the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. Here are some steps to help you become an empathetic listener.
- The empathetic listener projects their own personality into the personality of the speaker, so that they can better understand the speaker. They put themselves into the shoes of the speaker so they may fully understand where the speaker is coming from. It is easiest to understand when one person has experienced the same or similar situation of another person. That does not always happen though. It takes work from the listener to try and imagine what it would be like for the speaker to have gone through their situation.
- Empathetic listeners try to adopt the emotions and feelings of the speaker. They listen for the meanings rather than just the words. Nonverbal communication is sometimes clearer than verbal. The pitch of the voice, look on the face, posture, tapping of foot, and more are all play a part in the communication process. This also gives the speaker an opportunity to open up to the listener and process the feelings they have. It is so important to pick up on the nonverbals for many people do not say the words they are truly feeling when they are upset about something for fear of loss of relationship, job, environment, or other.
- Paraphrasing can be used in empathetic listening, which simply means to reword the thought or statement made by the speaker to see if it was understood or needs to be clarified. For example, if someone is telling you about how they made a mistake in life by marrying too young. You may say something like, "I'm sure it is difficult getting married at a young age." Reflecting feelings also is used in communicating the feelings the speaker is displaying. For example, you may say something like, "That must have been so painful for you," when they are telling you about the loss of a parent, and are obviously experiencing pain in talking about it.
- Summarize the main theme and feelings of the speaker after a long period of conversation. The shows empathetic listening and helps the speaker sort out all that has been said.
"Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being." -Marshall B. Rosenberg
"When... someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good... When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to perceive my world in a new way and go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens." -Carl Rogers
Empathic listening in 4 easy steps
- State the facts and what you can see
"It looks like your daughter came home last night after her curfew."
Guess the other person's feelings
"It sounds like you are feeling hurt and disappointed in your daughter for betraying your trust in her."
- Guess their need/want
"You probably wanted Katie to call you at least if she was going to be late. You had wanted her to be more responsible I bet. And now you would like an apology and good explanation for why she didn't call for being late last night."
- Guess their request (positive & do-able now)
"What would you like to happen now? I'm wondering what you think about talking to Katie about how you feel and opening the lines of communication through your initiation
The Art of Empathetic Listening
Listening is such a simple process. One person talks, the other person listens. Or do they?
We often confuse hearing with listening. The two are different, though both are done with our ears. Hearing is a natural function of the ear which involves the reception of sound. It's one of your senses. Listening is an acquired skill which involves the processing of words for the purpose of understanding communication messages from other humans.
Listening is not something we are taught, and short of getting direct feedback from those we communicate with we don't have a way of measuring our proficiency. Due to this fact most of us have an exaggerated sense of how well we listen. Studies show that the development of your listening skills is crucial to the overall success and fulfillment you will experience throughout your career and life because it dramatically improves your ability to relate to and connect with others.
Are you a good listener? Maybe. Can you become a better listener? Definitely; we all can. Any skill that can be practiced can be improved. Is it difficult? Yes, but the difficulty lies in learning to apply the skills consistently. In order to truly appreciate the significance of proficient listening skills you must first recognize that verbal communication is a two-part process that's comprised of both listening and talking. We've established that listening is the part that most people under develop, what we haven't established is why.
After reading a plethora of information on the subject of listening it seems that the top reason that people get distracted from the task of listening is...they simply aren't interested in the subject matter, the person, or both. How's that for scientific study and research. This forces us to revert back to the natural function of the ear as a hearing device. When we have no interest in what we are hearing (or who we are hearing it from) we process the sounds differently and pay less attention; thus preventing us from listening.
Studies show that people who have a natural curiosity tend to be better learners. Better learners also make better listeners and take a genuine interest in other people. Listening, as you recall, is the processing of words for the purpose of understanding communication messages from other humans. When listening with the objective of understanding both the content and the emotions of another person that's empathetic listening which enables you to pay attention to another person with empathy (emotional identification, compassion, feeling, and insight). Those who habitually employ empathetic communication techniques experience more satisfaction in their daily interactions with people.
Empathetic listening is very similar to what psychologists refer to as "active listening" whereby you repeat back to the person what you think she or he said to make certain you understand. Another technique is to ask how the person feels about the situation or perhaps to make a statement about how you believe the person feels. Empathetic listening is characterized by a genuine desire to understand the words and the emotions of the messages communicated by others.
When these messages are insufficiently received, there are usually several factors which prevent it. Thinking is the most common. The usual scenario is thinking about what you are going to say in response to what someone just said, rather than thinking about what they are saying. What causes us to do so much thinking while we are communicating with someone? Ego and emotions.
The negative impact that ego has on listening skills is major because ego dictates the perspective from which we listen. Those who are egotistical, highly educated, opinionated, or hyper analytical are better at sending off information (about themselves) than they are at receiving and processing information (about others). Ego blocks motivation for achieving empathy and creates a barrier in establishing a meaningful connection between two people.
While some may say that communication styles are what determines your ability to effectively communicate with someone else, your emotions (or emotional state) is more likely to erect filters which affect your ability to engage in empathetic listening. If you are a naturally cynical, oppositional, negative, critical, insecure, close-minded, pessimistic, or self-absorbed person you will listen to others and process the messages they send you from the base of those emotions. Needless to say, such emotions will strain attempts at empathetic listening if left unchecked.
People have different filters rooted in their culture, upbringing and gender. Men and women often have different kinds of filters, and that causes listening problems. Just by becoming aware of your own filters (even without changing them) you will improve your listening. This is where interpersonal skills come in to play. Interpersonal skills are all the behaviors and feelings that help us to understand ourselves and others. They also influence our interactions with others.
In order to unlock the key for empathetic listening, find common ground in the conversation which enables you to go from spectator to participant without cutting off the person who is speaking. By actually encouraging them to talk more you allow a natural flow which will inevitably take the conversation in different directions; directions that will give you the chance to gain deeper understanding.
This eliminates the threat of you becoming a non-listener who "drifts" in conversation. Be aware that eyes (glancing elsewhere or no eye contact) and body language (arms folded, yawning, etc.) can create or amplify feelings of resistance and boredom. An empathetic listener remains engaged by giving feedback and driving the conversation forward with open-ended questions (questions that can not be answered with a simple yes or no).
Always remember that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is because we are supposed to do more listening than we do talking. A little (genuine) concern in your listening efforts will go a long way and pay big dividends in your personal and professional relationships.
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