“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
Rachel Naomi Remen
Becoming a better listener takes a lot of effort, practice, and patience but one of the best gifts we can give a partner, friend, child, or colleague is taking the time to truly listen to them. We derive some of our greatest joy and life lessons from our relationships and being a really good listener is one of the keys to supporting great relationships of all kinds.
While some people seem to be born with the gift of listening, most of us need a little (or a lot of) practice to develop listening skills, and mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention with empathy and openness without judgement. When you listen mindfully, you are fully present and able to take in what the other person is saying. You aren’t formulating an opinion or judgment about what they are saying or distracted by your phone. You are simply giving them the gift of your undivided attention.
Ask yourself: How often are you truly listening when you’re in a conversation? As humans, our minds are constantly absorbed by our own thoughts, and this can significantly impact how well we listen. Listening is something we’ve been conditioned to do our whole lives—but there are levels of it. Listening is a conscious act that we must decide to do. Listening without judgment, assumptions, and distractions is a choice.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”Stephen R. Covey
I’m sure you’ll agree with Stephen R. Covey’s well known quote that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” I’m also fairly confident that we’ve all met people in our lives who do this. In fact, we’ve most likely been that person – jumping in, butting in, or telling them how much their experience is so similar to the experience we’ve had. Or, wanting to jump in and fix things. Our brains are hard-wired to fix things and so we look for problems we can fix. But sometimes we don’t need or want someone to fix our problems – sometimes we just want someone to listen to them. In any relationship, whether at work, at school, and especially at home, listening is a powerful act of presence and love. We can listen to the words that they are saying, and we can listen to the words that they are not saying, but conveying with their bodies. In any situation, being able to be there, with presence and deep listening, is a powerful act.
In a study published in a journal of family psychology in 2012, researchers found that partners’ relationships satisfaction increased when they perceived that their partner was making an effort to read what they were thinking and feeling regardless of the level accuracy. On the flip side, a lack of empathy can make a relationship feel like it lacks intimacy and connection, as well as increase the amount of conflict and negativity between partners.
What is Empathic Listening?
Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretations, you’re listening to understand . Empathetic listening is essentially listening to another and putting ourselves in their shoes. You remain empathically connected to yourself and the other, rather than triggered and defensive. When we feel safe enough to be present, we are more likely to express ourselves authentically, and thus more likely to be listened to, validated and valued in return.
“A relationship is about having a dedicated person to make you feel seen and heard. You will rarely feel seen and heard by someone who lacks empathy.”Kyle D. Jones
Why empathic listening is important?
Communication is the cornerstone of everything that’s important in life. Whether it’s building your career, being a great spouse, or learning to be an awesome parent, if you don’t communicate well, you will struggle in all those areas. Empathic listening is just a better way to listen.
Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy, however. We aren’t trying to feel sorry for the other person. We are trying to relate and understand where they are coming from. Sympathy has a way of making us feel superior. In this situation, it’s vital to remain equals. It’s putting ourselves in the shoes of others, not so we can feel sorry for them or offer constructive feedback. Instead, it simply allows us to fully understand what they are going through so they feel heard and supported.
Empathic listening is very powerful. People hunger all their lives to express what’s on their mind, be heard, and to be acknowledged—but rarely get enough.This is especially evident if something really good or bad happens in life. A bad listener conveys that you don’t matter. Equally, if you tell an important story and the other person’s response is to tell their own, you feel dismissed and trivialized. In the process of being listened to we experience that what we feel matters, what we’re saying is legitimate, it counts, and that someone understands us. If someone understands us, in turn, we feel like our experience means something and is real.
Now Your Turn
Try this powerful exercise: Ask someone you are close with a question and simply listen to them. LISTEN without trying to fix anything. Listen with the only purpose to understand how they are feeling and what they are saying. Begin to notice how this transforms the interaction. Share your experience in the comments below.