Empathetic listening - the key for better communication in relationships- 4 mins
Over the years if someone were to ask me - “How would you describe yourself?” or “What is something you bring to a relationship?”, my answer has remained consistent. “I am empathetic” - I would answer. However, recently I’ve realized that I’ve been very wrong with how I’ve been conveying empathy.
Internal vs external empathy - my realization
I classify myself as a pretty logical person. I like problem-solving at work. And this translated to my personal life as well. When someone close comes to me with a problem - I instantly develop empathy towards them and turn on my problem-solving mode. Those interactions usually end with my ‘golden’ advice and then my brain would focus on the next problem to solve.’
While I was developing empathetic emotions internally for people, I realized that I don’t express them well enough externally. This was evident when my girlfriend pointed out to me - “Sameer, this is the listening phase! Let’s talking solutions later.” And this was reinforced when I was reading Non-Violent Communication.
What is empathetic listening and why its the key to building better relationships
In NVC, the author describes empathy and empathetic listening as “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being”. The author also quoted this Buddhist saying that stood out to me -
“Don’t just do something, stand there.”
This might seem trite wisdom, but most of us are guilty of not really being present for people that need us. In NVC, the author states that problem-solving is only one of the ways where we gravitate towards, and here are some other ways we are not present when others are describing their feeling towards us -
- Advising: “I think you should… ” “How come you didn’t… ?”
- One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait till you hear what happened to me.”
- Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just… ”
- Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
- Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time… ”
- Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
- Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing… ”
- Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
- Explaining: “I would have called but… ”
- Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
This sort of intellectual understanding blocks empathy. It prevents us from truly being present with our partners and loved ones. And while we may think that we’ve helped out others, it may not seem like a burden off their shoulders for them. They were seeking to be listened to, and instead, their feelings were brushed aside with advice, consoling, sympathizing, etc.
Practicing active listening in relationships
Having practiced this form of active listening in my relationship, I can tell that it already brought my partner and me closer. This didn’t come naturally to me. When I first started, I had to catch my urge to switch to either problem-solving or consoling. The NVC framework below really helped me in this journey.
Step 1 - Listening for feeling and needs
The first step involves just listening. A lot of times, just shutting your mouth and being present will be better than not doing so. However, there are times where we need to listen to what feelings are being conveyed. Truly understanding the feelings will help you empathize with your partner better.
Behind those feelings are their unmet needs. Identifying those needs is important. It’s easy to jump to a solution when you’re at this stage but having some self-control and really being present will make your communication skills much better.
Step 2 - Paraphrasing feelings and needs
Once you have identified the person’s feelings and needs, paraphrase it back to them. “Are you feeling sad that X said so and so?”. “Are you wanting X to give you more respect?”
Paraphrasing is not only important for you to figure out what’s bothering the person but also gives them a chance at self-reflection. Often, people are frustrated without having a clear idea of what they are feeling or needing at that moment. Paraphrasing will give them that opportunity to do so.
Step 3 - Be patient
The final step involves just being patient when listening. Don’t try to proceed quickly. And only provide your advice when you’re asked to do so in the conversation.
You may discover that waiting for people to fully express their thoughts and opinions might reveal the bigger picture of what they’re going through or dealing with. This is especially true if you make them feel like you’re not in a hurry, which would happen if you jump to the advice stage quickly.
This is definitely not an easy framework to implement. It takes time and practice. But the rewards are worth it. It will bring you closer to people and make them want to share things with you. It will lead you to the path of being a better human.
A lot of the ideas from this article are derived from Non-Violent Communication. I highly recommend this book if you want to explore and improve your inter-personal relationships.
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