Listening and empathy training

 Listening and empathizing are essential skills when relating to others. Most of us spend 70% of the day communicating, 45% of that time listening. We all want to be listened to (but spouses talk only 10-20 minutes per day). It is insulting to be ignored or neglected. We all know what it means to listen, to really listen. It is more than hearing the words, it is truly understanding and accepting the other person's message and also his/her situation and feelings. Empathy means understanding another person so well that you identify with him/her, you feel like he/she does. The Indians expressed it as: "Walking a mile in another person's moccasins." It is listening so intently and identifying so closely that you experience the other person's situation, thoughts and emotions. Good therapists do this, so do good friends (Berger, 1987). How do good listening and accurate empathy help?


 Empathy is one of the more important skills you will ever acquire. It is amazing how few people do it well.


STEP ONE: Learn to be a good, active listener.

 Listening requires us to, first, really want to know the other person and, second, avoid the many common barriers to careful listening, such as (1) constantly comparing yourself to the speaker (Who is smarter? Who's had it rougher? This is too hard for me.), (2) trying to mind read what the talker really thinks (Suppose he really likes his wife? He probably thinks I'm stupid for saying that), (3) planning what argument or story to give next, (4) filtering so that one hears only certain topics or doesn't hear critical remarks, (5) judging a statement to be "crazy," "boring," "stupid," "immature," "hostile," etc. before it is completed, (6) going off on one's own daydreams, (7) remembering your own personal experiences instead of listening to the talker, (8) busily drafting your prescription or advice long before the talker has finished telling his/her woes, (9) considering every conversation an intellectual debate with the goal of putting down the opponent, (10) believing you are always right so no need to listen, (11) quickly changing the topic or laughing it off if the topic gets serious, and (12) placating the other person ("You're right...Of course...I agree...Really!") by automatically agreeing with everything (McKay, Davis & Fanning, 1983). Because of these barriers, we typically retain for a few minutes only 65% of what is said to us (recall 2 months later is 25%). There is much room for improvement.

 It is not easy to listen actively all the time. Our concentration lasts only 15-20 minutes. All of us get distracted at times. But the good listener gets back on track and asks clarifying questions when things aren't clear. Above all we must guard against prejudices, closed-minded opinions, defenses, and fears of being wrong which prevent us from hearing what is said. Furthermore, we must check what we hear against our knowledge of the situation and human nature. We should ask: How is the talker feeling and thinking about him/herself? How does he/she see the world? Finally, we must "listen to" the facial expression and body language as well as the words. Listening is a complex task. Listening can be done at twice the rate of talking, so use the extra time to review what was said and to wonder what wasn't said.

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two mouths and one ear
-Mark Twain

 A good listener looks the talker in the eye, nods at and leans towards the speaker, encourages the talker with smiles and "uh-huh," carefully avoids distractions and the other barriers mentioned above, remains earnestly interested in understanding the talker and freely shares his/her own opinions and experiences when it is his/her turn to talk.

STEP TWO: Understand what is involved in empathy responding.

 A good listener must respond, letting the talker know he/she was understood. This responding is empathy. It is even more complex than listening; no one is perfect. You don't have to be perfect, but the more accurate an empathizer you can become, the better. Often, when we are upset, we want to express and share our feelings with an understanding person. So, the good empathizer focuses on the talker's feelings, not on his/her actions or circumstances. Example: when talking with someone who has just been left by a lover, don't ask "What did he/she say?" or "When did you first suspect?" but instead attend to and reflect the feelings, "It really hurts" or "You feel abandoned and lost." This focus on feelings encourages the talker to explore the core of the problem--his/her emotions. When we are upset, we need to work through and handle our feelings before we can concentrate on solving the problems.

 It is easy to see how the barriers to listening lead to poor empathy responses. The following scale will illustrate poor empathy responses and good ones (good responses include accurate reflection of what the talker just said and tentative comments that help the talker understand him/herself). You must have a clear conception of empathy before you can effectively use it, so study this scale well.

Levels of empathy responding

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