Empathic communication – sounds deep. And it is, but it isn’t impossible. Empathy is more than sympathy, which is just a form of agreement. Empathy is truly understanding another from their frame of reference, as if you’re in the same situation and feeling the same emotions. Why is that so hard?
It’s hard because in our world we listen with the intent to reply – or, more accurately, butt in with our better story or advanced and superior opinion. This is actually normal, so don’t grieve if you find yourself doing that. But when you can, work in your Circle of Influence, be proactive and aware, and decide to listen with the intent to understand before speaking. Habit 5 is called Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. There is a sequence, and it is both logical and pathological.
There are 5 levels of listening; ignoring, pretending, selective, attentive and empathic. Most of us vacillate between selective and attentive, but the latter is the most effective in conversations involving emotion – like political and sociological debate. The enemy of empathic listening is the need to probe, advise when only listening is required, to interpret (wrongly) based on our experience, and to evaluate or judge.
To properly hear what someone is saying you have to listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Your eyes and ears will add emotion to the words being spoken, and your heart will seek to interpret what is really being said. Unfortunately, the Twitter world says we must decide in advance what the racist/sexist/transphobic misogynist is saying, even before they speak, and we then call ourselves enlightened and woke.
Covey’s advice is to reflect and reframe someone’s communication as a means of seeking to understand and to demonstrate that you hear what they are saying. If you want an example of how this is NOT done, watch Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News, where she keeps reflecting back what she has decided he said, when he clearly has not! (Go HERE)
My own experience is that once you start to listen ‘better’, you find yourself finishing other people’s sentences before they do – hopefully in less emotional discussions but the principle applies. You are clearly listening with intent to understand if you can demonstrate that understanding by completing the other’s thoughts!
Another way of seeing that you are effectively exercising Habit 5 is when you disagree with someone’s opening statement, then listen and find that your original counter-argument is amended – or even unnecessary. Listening has resulted in them realising the error of their thoughts – or in you doing the same.
Consider the art of empathic communication next time you watch any political debate on the television, and you will soon realise that ‘our betters’ are rarely interested in the first part of Habit 5. At the risk of starting an argument, watch Jacob Rees-Mogg and Vince Cable HERE, and see how each listens to the other without interruption, so that each can understand and counter the other’s argument. Then compare it to most such debates you see.
Habit5 requires that you work within your Circle of Influence out of genuine interest in the other’s thoughts and words; exercising the character to listen rather than speak; and also the maturity to be willing to be influenced by what is being said.
Stephen Covey once said that this was the hardest Habit for him – and if it’s hard for him, recognise that means you have to start practising now!