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?
- It shows you care and that you understood the other person. Thus, people will enjoy talking to you and will open up more.
- If you have misunderstood, the talker can immediately correct your impressions. You learn more about people.
- It usually directs the conversation towards important emotional topics.
- It lets the talker know that you (the listener) accept him/her and will welcome more intimate, personal topics. It invites him/her to tell his/her story and vent his/her feelings.
- Since it is safe to talk about "deep" subjects, the talker can express feelings and self-explore, carefully considering all his/her deep-seated emotions, the reasons for those feelings and his/her options. Thus, it is therapeutic.
- It reduces our irritation with others because we understand. To understand is to forgive.
- It may even reduce our prejudice or negative assumptions about others because we realize we now have a means of finding out what another person is really like. Furthermore, we discover everyone is "understandable."
- It fosters more meaningful, more helpful, closer friendships.
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
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
Level 1.0: Inaccurate reflection or distracting comments.
- Changing-the-topic responses--a friend is complaining about a school assignment and you say, "There was a good movie on channel 3 last night."
- "I know better than you" response--these are god-like pronouncements, such as "There's nothing wrong with you. You'll feel better tomorrow" or "The real problem is that your mother spoiled you" or "You are so in love, you can't see what a jerk he is."
- Judgmental responses--a person tells you they had several beers last night and you say, "I hope you didn't drive afterwards--you could kill someone." (This may be a responsible reaction but it isn't empathic.)
- Advising response--a 35-year-old tells you they are scared to go back to school and you immediately tell them what college to go to, what courses to take, what notebook paper to buy, etc.
- Discounting and premature reassurance --a co-worker tells you that her husband didn't come home last night and you comment, "Oh, everybody has little spats, don't worry about it. He'll be home tonight." This is a little like saying, "Don't talk to me about it any more."
- Psychoanalysis --a male friend describes his fear of getting married and you explain to him that he was too emotionally involved with his mother and that he is scared that a wife would dominate and smother him like his mother did. This may be true, but let him self-explore and discover it on his own.
- Questions --a friend hints at some problem in his/her marriage and you start the inquisition, "Do you two talk?" "Do you go out?" "How is sex?" Questions control and guide the conversation (that's bad); let the talker tell his/her story in his/her own way. (On the other hand, questions that seek to clarify what the talker has just described are not controlling and encourage the talker to talk more.)
- Telling your own story --your friend's problem reminds you of a similar experience which you share (that's not so bad, unless you forget to return to your friend's concern).
Most of us are guilty of some of these unempathic responses. A few poor responses occasionally are no problem, but many of us are instant reassurers and constant questioners. Many others of us divert attention away from any serious problem as soon as we detect it (that's fine for us to do with strangers, but it is terrible thing to do to a friend). Others of us seem to see every earthly problem to be a challenge to our intellect; thus, we dispose of our friends' problems in 5 minutes or, at least, during the coffee break. If the talker has a significant problem, it may take two or three hours--or much more--to help him/her.
Level 2.0: Correct understanding of some of the other person's feelings and circumstances, but other significant factors are misunderstood or overlooked.
Examples: at this level, the listener doesn't entirely understand the talker's feelings. This may discourage the speaker from expressing more feelings unless the listener clearly indicates an interest in clarifying exactly what the talker is experiencing. Suppose a colleague tells you how mad he is at the boss and you respond, "You feel like going in and telling her off" but he responds, "Oh, no, I'm mad but not stupid!" You failed to understand that the talker was also feeling helpless and afraid to disclose his true feelings to the boss. If you had been right and he had responded, "Boy, would I love to do that!," it would have been a 3.0 response.
Nichols (1995) says it is usually our emotional reactions to what has been said that causes our misunderstandings. Example: the talker says something that triggers our anger, insecurity, hurt, defensiveness, or other emotion (not necessarily related to the speaker), which distracts us.
Level 3.0: An accurate empathy response captures the essence of the talker's feelings.
You have put yourself "in their shoes." Your comments reflect exactly what the talker has told you. Be brief. Use simple words and your own words, called paraphrasing; otherwise, it may sound like you are thoughtlessly "parroting" him/her. In this way, the talker knows you are attending closely and that you care. It is important to realize that no one can be an accurate empathizer every time he/she responds. Thus, even the best therapists will average 2.5 or 2.7 on this scale. Be tentative, because empathy statements are really questions. For example, when you say, "You are feeling down" you are really asking "You are feeling sad, right?" When you are slightly off the mark, it isn't awful, it gives the talker a chance to immediately "set the record straight" and get you precisely in tune with him/her. So, it is important to make frequent comments reflecting your understanding of what has just been said. If the talker gets no comment from you for two or three minutes, he/she doesn't know "where you are at" and may conclude that you have lost interest, disapprove of what he/she is saying, or don't understand.
Example: if a friend calls and blurts out what a terrible day she has had--the car wouldn't start, co-workers were talking about her, she heard a rumor that her company was going broke, and she found out she has herpes--and you respond, "You really feel overwhelmed, like everything is out of control and going against you." If she says, "That's exactly how I feel," your comment was a 3.0 empathy response. If she says, "Well, frankly, I was pissed off all day and I'm still steaming," you get a 2.0 or a 2.2 rating although you made a good guess.
Level 4.0: Adding to the talker's self-understanding.
It is possible for an astute empathizer to understand (guess) what the talker is feeling even before the talker has recognized and/or expressed his/her own emotion. As soon as the empathizer questions if the talker might be feeling a certain way, the talker may readily recognize the underlying emotion and accept the interpretation. This can add greatly to the talker's insight, awareness or understanding of his/her feelings and the situation. It takes a while to know anyone well enough to give an insightful response. If you give an interpretation too soon it may seen too personal or critical and turn the talker off. Interpretations are always guesses, so be tentative: "Could it be..." or "I'm wondering if...."
Example: when a friend says, "I thought marriage would solve all my problems. I was so happy for a while but now everything is going wrong," you might respond, "Right now your marriage is causing you a lot of pain but marriage is so important to you that I'm wondering if it isn't really scary to think it might end?" The friend might tearfully respond, "You're so right. I remember what a terrible time it was for me when my parents divorced." (So, you made a 3.5 or a 3.8 response.) But he/she might say, "Oh, what a terrible thought. I don't want to think about that, so don't say something like that again." (Well, I really was off the track there, maybe a 1.5 or a 2.0 response.)
Level 5.0: Fantastic insight.
After knowing a person well for a long time, one may be able to provide some brilliant insight occasionally. Great insight is a rare event, however. Even highly skilled therapists spout profound, creative insights only infrequently. A 4.5+ response requires both an open-minded talker and a creative empathizer.
Example: if your roommate has had a series of love relationships which end about the time they are getting intimate and serious, you may have observed that all of the boyfriends have a striking similarity to her father who divorced her mother when she was 5. You might suggest that her association of her boyfriends with her father and rejection may make intimacy especially scary to her. If she agrees and decides to select a different kind of boyfriend or to recognize that this is an irrational association which she can deal with, you may have given a 5.0 empathy response. If she tells you to forget that "stupid psychology crap," you have a 1.5 response and some work to do to rebuild the relationship.