Message 44, “Positive Change for a New Year: Empathetic Listening”, 1-9-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 01-09-11

Two life partners, who have been together for many years, are in their bedroom getting ready to go out for the evening.  One stands in front of the mirror and exclaims, “Oh, look at me!  I have gotten so old and wrinkled.  And I have so much extra weight on me too.  Please, dear, tell me something positive about myself!”  There is a long pause of silence before, finally, the other partner responds.  “Well, dear, you have absolutely terrific eyesight!”

And thus, in a humorous way, this story highlights a problem our culture and so many of us deal with day in day out.  What we have here, as the famous movie line goes, is a failure to communicate!  Most blame our communication break downs on an inability to fully, accurately and succinctly express ourselves – either verbally or by written word.  More often than not, however, we fail to genuinely understand each other – in an accurate and caring manner – because we do not listen. A failure to listen does not just involve not hearing words spoken.  It involves so much more than that.  Indeed, many experts assert that only 30% of the way we speak to others is communicated verbally – through words.  Instead, the other 70% of communication is conveyed through body language, voice inflection, facial expression, and the pace and volume of speech.  A monotone –  “I love you” conveys far different meaning than an impassioned “I love you!” And that is just a simple example.  How do we accurately hear and fully listen to each other when far deeper emotions are involved or more complex issues are discussed?

Experts assert that we generally listen at one of four levels.  We are either ignoring what we hear, we pretend to hear what is spoken, we are selectively listening or we are attentively listening.   The latter category of listening is the most difficult to practice and, unfortunately, it is rarely achieved.  I choose to call attentive listening by another name.  I call it empathetic listening which demands a focused and disciplined way of engaging in conversation or discussion.  I believe a fundamental flaw in most work, romantic and friendly relationships is a failure to fully and accurately communicate.  One component of effective communication is the ability to listen and then fully understand what has been said.  In my mind, the spoken word is over-valued.  A listening heart and spirit is so much better.

In the daily affairs of life, we often talk to others instead of with others.  In many conversations or discussions, we interrupt, we offer advice, we respond with simple platitudes, we change the subject to focus on ourselves or we simply don’t pay attention.  Confusion, tension, broken relationships and work inefficiency are all the result.

We so often, therefore, fail to listen to others with empathy. We understand the meaning of words spoken but most importantly fail to discern the emotions and feelings behind the words.  In the funny situation with which I began this message, how may better responses might have been given had the partner sought to understand and empathize with the emotions of someone who is likely fearful of the aging process and all that involves?

Our message series for this month is focused on what a lot of people are doing at this time of year – resolving to change.  A new year brings new resolutions to grow and be a better person.  In that regard, I’ve chosen three topics where altering behavior can, I believe, create significantly positive change.  Today, we will look at how we can practice the fine art of empathetic listening.  Next Sunday, we’ll look at how changing the way we process our thoughts – altering our cognitive approach to the world – can produce renewed lives.  Finally, in our third week, we will look at how affirming speech – and practicing it – will also improve relationships and our own sense of well-being.  As always, I am merely a co-participant in this journey called life and these messages are intended to inspire both you and me…I am far from being some perfected saint who lectures you with a sense of superiority.

I therefore believe it is a spiritual endeavor to change our existing patterns of behavior for the better.  In that regard, learning how to better listen and show true empathy is a way of connecting with others and with the world around us.  It involves putting into practice the ideal that life is not just about me as an individual.  We exist for a higher purpose – to serve others – and for our purpose today, one way to serve is to empathetically listen to others.

The Biblical book of Proverbs says that we are to turn our ears to wise sayings and then apply our hearts to what is heard.  Such is the essence of empathetic listening.  Jesus himself encouraged his followers to hear not only with their ears but to see with their eyes and understand with their hearts.  He asked for empathy.  The Buddhist Shantideva says, Whatever joy there is in the world, comes from cherishing others. Whatever suffering there is in the world, comes from only cherishing yourself.” If we are to exist with one another in a manner that brings happiness, we must cherish others so much so that we truly understand their thoughts, fears, dreams, and pains.

Empathetic listening therefore involves opening the spirit to hear, comprehend, love and care about the thoughts and words of another. It does not mean extending sympathy or agreement.  It means being still, not speaking, and then engaging the ears, mind and heart so that you fully understand another person.  When we practice empathetic listening, we have heard and understood to the degree that we are not only able to communicate back what has been said but we have put ourselves symbolically into the shoes of the other in order to see and feel an issue or problem from their perspective.  As I said, this is not sympathy.  Sympathy is feeling FOR someone.  Empathy is feeling AS someone.  Furthermore, one does not need to agree with the other in terms of what is said or the feelings expressed.  Empathetic listening engages the heart in a manner such that one simply understands the words AND the emotions.  I see you.  I hear you.  I feel what you are feeling.  As President Bill Clinton famously said, “I feel your pain.”

By listening more – and doing so empathetically – I believe we will actually improve relationships in our lives and thus create positive change.  Tension, confusion, inefficiency and misunderstandings might be reduced or eliminated if we empathetically listen.  To engage in the practice builds trust, respects and acknowledges the other, gains the speaker’s cooperation, creates openness, encourages greater sharing of information and leads to effective problem solving.  At work, we will be more efficient.  At home and with loved ones, we will be happier.  Indeed, many times people need to engage in what is called “cathartic communication.”  Emotions and feelings need to be expressed.  For that to happen in healing ways, however, someone must be willing and able to listen and empathize.

Experts agree that empathetic listening involves several crucial steps.  First, the listener gives the other his or her full attention.  He or she is completely present in the moment with mind, ears, heart and attitude fully engaged.  One’s body language is essential.  The listener is open, relaxed and aware.  Some suggest the listener’s body be positioned with shoulders softened, legs and feet uncrossed, hands open and unclenched, arms are uncrossed, and the upper torso leans at a slight tilt – around 5 degrees – towards the speaker.  The listener looks the speaker in the eye and never yawns, fidgets or looks around.

Second, an empathetic listener does not talk while the other is speaking.  One never interrupts.  One might ask a few clarifying questions but not so many that the speaker might feel he or she is being grilled.  An occasional head nod or “uh huh” is also good.  The listener does not share his or her own personal experiences nor does he or she try and problem solve or offer advice.  Empathetic listeners are not defensive if accusations are made about them – they are not baited into arguments.  Extending simple platitudes are also ineffective – like, “It will all be OK” or “It’s not that bad.”   Finally, it is best if the listener does not think of what his or her response will be while the other is talking. The essential criteria are to simply and attentively LISTEN.

The third step in effective empathetic listening is to summarize, after the speaker has concluded, what has just been said.  But this should not be a simple recitation of facts or words.  A good summary of what has been heard will restate the facts while letting the speaker know that you understand meaning and emotion.  The listener is able to articulate the feelings behind what the speaker has said.  This is where hearing with the eyes and the heart are important.  The listener must use intuition to read the body language of the speaker and to hear changes in the voice or volume to discern emotions.  If that is not possible or if one is still confused about how the speaker feels, it is ok to simply ask how he or she feels about what they just said.  As an example, a good friend might give a long and very detailed description of a parent’s medical condition, surgery or other therapies.  An empathetic listener will be able to briefly recount the highlights of what is going on and then be able to suggest what the speaker is feeling.  “Your father is very ill due to a heart attack.  The illness of a parent can be frightening and very sad and I sense that is how you are feeling.”

The point of this crucial step is to simply be a mirror to the speaker.  An empathetic listener reflects what has been said and what is being felt.  Being able and willing to identify and articulate the emotions of the speaker is most important.  That is what distinguishes an empathetic and attentive listener from one who is selective in listening.  When Ed and I have an argument, it is common for me to listen to the words he says but then respond with commentary or perhaps a defense.  Instead, our discussion and the solution to our problem will come if I am able to listen to and discern the emotion he is feeling – anger, sadness, frustration, or whatever.  By repeating to him the facts of what he just said and then telling him I have heard and understand how he feels, even if I don’t agree with him, I will have truly shown him respect and love.

Finally, after the listener has summarized and it is clear that the speaker has been understood, it is ok for the listener to simply be quiet and say nothing.  Silence at this point is often good.  Experts say that many people appreciate opportunities to be heard and they are able to work out, by actively giving voice to their problem, an appropriate solution.  Effective listeners have open ears, closed mouths and are, in general, silent.  Indeed, it might be cliché but it is an obvious truth that humans have evolved with a need for two ears and only one mouth.   We must listen more than we speak.

All of us lead very fragile lives.  We might think we are brave and courageous folk who can tackle any problem but the truth remains that life is full of challenges, setbacks and hurt.  And we see so many around us who are similarly hurting and in need of human connection.  International terrorism, for instance, is fundamentally based on fear, insecurity and poverty in many Muslim nations.  How often have we sought to hear, understand and empathize with the emotional wounds many poor or exploited Muslims feel?

In our own nation today, liberals and conservatives often scream at each other across an ideological divide that seems too wide for any bridge to span.  How often do we really hear and understand the emotions of fear, insecurity or doubt in such exchanges?  The insecurity and frustration of the gay and lesbian community so long demeaned, bullied and marginalized?  The fears of farmers and small business owners taxed and regulated to the point where they are ready to give up?  The dreams of Latinos and African-Americans as they yearn to share in the blessings of our nation?  The nightmares of an unemployed and uninsured father as he worries about the health and well-being of his wife and children?  We shout and yell at each other across a political divide without listening and without any willingness to show empathy or understanding for what has motivated opposing political views.  Indeed, I believe highly opinionated people are the least empathetic.  They tell others what they think instead of seeing, hearing and feeling what others believe and feel.  As I said earlier, empathy does not involve agreement but it does require a conscious willingness to see things from the perspective of the other.  I believe such a choice opens us up to a morally imagined world of compassion and the possibility of cooperation instead of confrontation.

Many studies show that the best learners are those with a natural sense of curiosity.  And those with natural curiosity have one character trait in common – they practice effective listening skills.  As we diminish our egos and our inflated sense of self, we are motivated to connect with others in an empathetic manner.  We listen.  We seek understanding.  We feel the pain of others.

In this New Year, I have already tried to put into practice better listening skills.  I want to be an empathetic listener.  As with all things, this will take practice and I will frequently fail in my efforts or I will completely forget to listen with empathy.  But I am trying to consciously be aware of how I listen to others and I encourage all of you to gently hold me accountable.  St. Augustine once said that we ought to tell the world as often as possible about the love of God.  And, when necessary – he said, use words.  I believe that it is in our quiet, knowing moments of listening and of silence that we communicate to others our love and care – we don’t need words.  I believe that by listening to how we might have hurt or frustrated a lover or friend, we will have truly honored him or her.  I believe that what a world in pain needs most in this New Year is empathy – for you, for me, for genuine understanding and peace.