Empathic listening nurtures a feeling of belonging. But it’s hard!
When we communicate with others, there are so many things that can get in the way. The mind can be a noisy place, full of reactions and distractions. And the silence can be deafening when it hangs in between the words.
In a recent Nonviolent Communication class, we did an exercise highlighting how quickly we can become disconnected from empathic listening. NVC is based on creating space for honesty and empathy concerning human feelings and needs.
One person would share a story in the exercise while the other engaged with intentional non-empathic listening. It was fun to be the listener and infuriating to be the talker. But it was also interesting to recognise how many things get in the way of empathic listening. The noisy well-meaning thoughts that harvest disconnection from the other person’s simple need to be heard.
This kind of disconnection is what can make you feel lonely around others. It’s a driver of unbelonging. But on the flip side, receiving empathy opens up a sense of belonging. There is space for our feelings and needs to exist in the world.
“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle”– Simone Weil
Empathic Listening is a Choice – Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There
Empathic listening is not something we naturally do all the time in every situation. It requires us to get out of the way so we might listen to, into, and through the other person.
Habits That Block Empathic Listening
The exercise showed us how infuriating it could be when you need empathy but receive something else. And even with the world’s best intentions, we can create disconnection and resistance when we jump into these habits. Most of us talked about how difficult it is not to default to one of these positions when someone is talking.
Sometimes we create disconnection when our goal is connection.
We might find ourselves making suggestions or telling the other person what we would do if we were them.
This can cultivate disconnection by reinforcing feelings such as stress, vulnerability, and weariness.
Fixing, Helping or Solving
We might take it upon ourselves to sort out what we see as The Problem for them.
This can cultivate disconnection by disempowering the other person, leaving them with a story of inadequacy and helplessness.
Analysing and Diagnosing
We might look for reasons something happened in a particular way. We look to uncover an explanation, diagnosis, and the “because”, of their feeling. This is not empathic listening.
This can cultivate disconnection through critical judgement and intellectualism.
Changing The Subject
We might feel uncomfortable and unable to deal with something someone says, so we move the conversation onto something more trivial.
This can cultivate disconnection by extinguishing the flame of what is alive in the other person.
Telling Related Stories
We might scour our archive of experiences and find a story that reminds us of what they are saying.
This can cultivate disconnection by making it about the story and not the feelings they have about what happened.
We might respond with what we think is a better or more extreme story. It might be preluded with “I wouldn’t worry, it’s not as bad as the time…” This is not empathic listening.
This can cultivate disconnection by giving us a sense that our experience isn’t as valid (impressive, funny, traumatic, sad etc.) as other people’s.
Showing Pity, Sympathy, or Enthusiasm
We might say, “wow, that’s terrible”, or “wow, that’s amazing”.
This can cultivate disconnection by projecting a judgement onto what they say. They might think they should feel what they are supposed to. Not what they do feel.
We might align with and reinforce the other person’s judgements. Saying things like, “yeah, I know exactly what you mean; that was completely out of order!”
This can cultivate disconnection by keeping them in a particular emotional space. It can open up a path for spiralling feelings like resentment and frustration.
Reassuring or Consoling
We might enter motivational mode and say, “don’t worry, you’ve got this!” Maybe we say, “it wasn’t your fault; you did your best”. Or we might reverse the cause of pain. Saying, for example, “well, I think you’re great” when someone shares that they’ve been rejected.
This can cultivate disconnection by ignoring the feeling and focusing on what was said. It can give a sense that the feeling is unimportant because it’s somehow wrong.
Shutting Them Down
We might use the words “at least” to indicate that the other person’s emotions are unwarranted. “Well, you’re still faster than me”, we might say when the other person laments their decreased walking speed. Or “cheer up, at least you have a job” to the person struggling at work. Or “people would kill to be in your position; you shouldn’t be sad”. This is not empathic listening.
This can cultivate disconnection by invalidating the humanness of the other person. Feelings and needs are universal, regardless of the position someone is in.
Probing or Interrogating
We might fish for more details, probe for gossip or try to find out why the other person is in this situation.
This can cultivate disconnection by showing we are more interested in what happened than how they feel. The conversation can become entertainment – a puzzle to solve or some gossip to dig into.
A Simple Response To an Epidemic of Loneliness
Empathy is simple, but it’s frigging hard.
Nonviolent Communication it’s about listening out for the other person’s feelings. And the need beneath the feeling. As the listener, it is about staying out of judgement, receiving what they say, and communicating your understanding of their feelings. NVC is described as a “process” form of language, with a fluid openness to recapping what we hear and asking if we’ve heard what they say.
It can feel clunky and wooden when we practice this in the training group. But I can also feel it becoming more natural as I relax and remind myself that getting it wrong is part of the process.
“If we have accurately received the other party’s message, our paraphrasing will confirm this for them. If, on the other hand, our paraphrase is incorrect, we give the speaker an opportunity to correct us. Another advantage of choosing to reflect a message back to the other party is that it offers them time to reflect on what they’ve said and an opportunity to delve deeper into themselves.”Marshall Rosenberg
Several times, I’ve had something I said reflected back to me, only to realise that my feelings and words contradict each other. “I DID say that, didn’t I? And yet, I don’t feel it.” This kind of communication can help us become more self-aware about little inner conflicts that might be causing us frustration and pain.
Empathic Listening Nurtures Belonging
When we receive empathy, we feel seen, heard, and safe. From here, we might be open to communicating in those other ways. Maybe we DO want to hear and share stories of similar things. Perhaps we WOULD appreciate knowing that our situation isn’t as bad as someone else’s. Or we would LIKE to change the subject and talk about what happened in the game at the weekend.
Which of those responses do you recognise from your conversations? As both the thing that you default to and the thing that leaves you feeling most disconnected.