Feeling Heard: The Practice Of Engaged, Empathic Listening



How important is listening?


The answer is obviously 'really bloody important'.


So important, in fact, that we created special codes and phrases to ensure that what is being communicated is received and understood. Roger that!


Why is it then, that when it comes to everyday listening we are often pretty useless?


Yes, we are all busy, yes we have a lot on our plates or minds, but does that really excuse not giving the other person our full attention?


When studying for my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology, active, curious, empathic listening was a huge part of my training. As a coach, not only do you need to be able to listen attentively to what is being said, but also to what isn't being said, the tone and inflection a client uses, and the silences in their story. On a superficial level, you also have to look like you are listening and then demonstrate that you are listening, by summarising what has been said, validating the feelings you notice about the message, and asking effective curious questions to help a client dig a little deeper.


I love listening to other people and always look for an opportunity to deepen my connection with someone (and hone my skills too), but unfortunately, it's has also left me much more aware of people who don't listen.


You've probably got someone in mind right now. I'm going to hazard a guess that they imagine they can conduct a meaningful conversation whilst playing on their phone, laptop, tablet etc., but actually just leave you feeling side-lined and unimportant. Maybe they don't ever seem to hear what you say because they are so busy thinking about what they will say next? Or perhaps they just never seem to show that much interest in you and your life, and prefer to talk about themselves?


If you are sitting there feeling uncomfortable because you recognise yourself in some of those, don't worry! We all do these things at some point or another. The difference between you and those other people, is that you've recognised that you do it and you don't like it, so you have the opportunity to change it.


The most effective strategy to achieve this is by developing your skills and becoming an engaged, empathic listener.



"There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak." - Simon Sinek


What is empathic listening?


If you've ever had a conversation with someone who leaves you feeling validated and understood, you have probably experienced empathic listening. Empathic listeners are the people who others go to to unburden their souls, get advice from, and with whom they share their deepest fears and secrets.


They naturally put the other person first in conversations and refrain from sharing their own opinions, instead providing a judgment free space in which they can connect with the other person more deeply.


They tune in on an empathic level in order to fully understand the other persons values, opinions, ideas and motivations. They know it isn't about agreeing with the speaker's views, but about appreciating their perspective and noticing what they say, how they say it and deciphering how they might be feeling.


As I mentioned earlier, body language and what we don't say speaks almost as much as what we do say. That's why trying to conduct a meaningful conversation with someone while they are doing something else is so frustrating.


You know there is no way they are being attentive and so it makes you feel unimportant or like you have nothing interesting to say. Which can be a huge blow to your self-esteem. Over time the frustration and bitterness can eat away at the relationship until there is nothing left but resentment. Bleak, huh?


The good news is that with practice it is possible to learn to be a more empathic listener. Here are six ways you can improve your skills and become a more engaged and empathic listener:


1. Be Present

Turn off your devices and ensure you give the other person your undivided attention. This includes checking your body language; which means making regular eye contact (if you and they find it comfortable), turning your body slightly towards them with your arms uncrossed, and ignoring what is happening in your surroundings.


Making verbal and non-verbal indications that you are listening is very important. Nods, smiles (if appropriate) and micro-validations, such as 'really' or, 'that makes sense' or those little, 'mmm hmm' noises we make all reassure the speaker we are listening and hearing them and encourage them to continue their story.


2. Don't Interrupt

It is tempting to jump in and share your own experiences to try and reassure the other person you know what they are experiencing, but the truth is that you don't really know.


Everyone's experiences are unique and influenced by their past, their upbringing, their beliefs, values and morals, and even their social circles. Two people might technically go through the same event, but both will experience it in different ways. By trying to share your personal narrative, you are undervaluing the speaker's story and giving the impression that your experiences are more important.


3. Give 'Psychological Air'

Covey (2020) suggests that the gold standard of empathic listening involves rephrasing content and reflecting feelings; what he termed giving the speaker 'psychological air'. This reassures the speaker that they are in a safe space and creates what Covey calls 'soul-to-soul flow', which invokes feelings of trust and allows for vulnerability.


This might look like, "It sounds like you're really frustrated with your family right now."


It is when you indicate that you heard what was said, and also identified the emotions that you observed, without judgment or trivialising what they are experiencing.


4. Don't Offer Advice

We are all natural helpers. We get a little burst of feel good hormones when we help others, and we usually hate to see people suffering or in pain. That's why it is so hard to bite your tongue and hold back advice when someone tells you about an problem.


But it is important that you restrain yourself and just be there for the speaker, showing compassion and understanding. Even if you think you can see the problem, your role is to listen and validate the speaker and allow them to find their own solution, as demonstrated in the comical video below.




5. Ask Encouraging Questions

This is a tricky one, because not all questions are appropriate, depending on the context and you could do more harm than good. That being said, careful questioning and clarification can indicate the listener is interested in what is being said and help the speaker open up their narrative.


Where appropriate, try questions or clarifications such as:

  • "You sound [insert emotions here]."

  • "How do you feel about this?"

  • "How did you react?"

  • "Do you know why they did that?"

  • "When did that happen?"

  • "Have you experienced a similar situation in the past?"

  • "What can I do for you?"

  • "That sounds really hard."

  • "How can I best support you?"


6. Validate The Emotions Of The Speaker

One of the ways to do this is to ensure that you respond with similar energy to the person speaking, mirroring their excitement when responding. It also involves suspending your own emotions, beliefs and values in order to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of the speaker.


Providing psychological air, as discussed above, if the best way to validate the emotions of the speaker and show that you do not judge them.


As Maya Angelou said,

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Conclusion

Social empathy and compassion seem to be in decline. Despite the selfless action of many people over the past couple of years we are in danger of reverting to our old self-interested habits and pulling up the metaphorical drawbridge to keep people out.


The trouble is that without compassion and empathy, our social structure is at risk and we open ourselves up to greater social problems such as loneliness, anxiety, depression and mental ill-health.


This is just as true in your professional life as it is in your personal life. How many meetings have you been in where the person is doodling, or working on something else, or gives you the impression that they don't have much time for you? It's a barrier to accessing support and help when times are tough and it doesn't make what you have to say feel very important does it?


That's why empathic listening is the answer to better relationships, better social connections, better leadership and a better workplace culture. I believe empathic listening encourages compassion, which leads to understanding, which leads to deeper connections and psychological safety. Something everybody needs to feel heard, valued and empowered.

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