The Single Most Important Trait In Human Communication: Empathy
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”~ Dale Carnegie
The greatest influences of our time seem to protest the above sentiment in one way or another as the key to effective communication.
We spend the majority of our waking lives communicating with the people. It is one of the most important skills to master. Yet I see so few of us do.
Early life teaches us how to speak…then write…then learn. But what about listening? When do we ever sit down and learn how to listen in order to really deeply understand another human being?
Our character will determine a person’s trust or distrust in choosing to to open up or not. I believe the potential you have to influence another is dictated by our conduct of character, and how another experiences this character.
Here is something I feel many of us think, but rarely say:
Unless I open up with you about my situation and feelings how will you ever know how to counsel me?
But how can I open up when I feel you don’t even understand me?
Your words may mention care and appreciation but all I have are your words, and I cannot trust words in the cloud of my emotion.
From my experience, if you want to be a really effective communicator you have to build the skill of empathetic listening with a strong character that inspires openness and trust.
“Seek first to understand” is a very humbling modality to accept. Instead we have habituated ourselves to seek first to be understood.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own autobiography into other people’s lives.” ~ Stephen Convey
“Oh I know exactly how you feel!”
“I went through he very same thing. I’ll tell you about my experience…”
I am no stranger to this inconsideration. We have all projected our own life stories onto other people’s behaviour without thought.
A brilliant short anecdote to illustrate this idea by Convey:
A father once told me, “I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”
“Let me restate what you just said,” I replied. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”
“That’s right,” he replied.
“Let me try again,” I said. “You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”
“That’s what I said,” he impatiently replied.
“I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him,” I suggested.
“Oh!” he said. There was a long pause. “Oh!” he said again, as the light began to dawn. “Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he is going through. I went through the same thing myself. I guess what I don’t understand is why he won’t listen to me.”
This man didn’t have the slightest idea of what was actually going through his son’s mind. Instead he filtered and judged his son through his own pre-conceived bias’ of how he saw the world.
The above dialogue is experienced within so many of us.
We may practice ‘pretending listening’ as we feign our attention. We may practice ‘selective listening’ hearing only certain points of the conversation. Or ‘attentive listening’ paying close attention to the words that are being said.
As a result very few of us ever practice ‘emphatic listening’. Meaning to listen with the intent to understand. Emphatic listening get’s inside another person’s minds eye. You look out through it and see the way they see the world. You don’t judge through your lens, you understand how they feel.
Empathy Is Not Sympathy
Sympathy is a form of agreement and people feed on sympathy to make them feel better. But sympathy often doesn’t breed problem solving or understanding. It breed’s comfort. Sometimes it’s needed, but people can become dependent to a sympathetic ear to find excuses to the problems in their life instead of solutions.
The basis of emphatic listening is not that you agree with someone. It’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.
Emphatic listening involves much more than acknowledging, reflecting or even understanding the words that are said. It involves listening with your eyes and you heart. You listen for feeling and for meaning.
Empathic listening actually gives you accurate information to work with. Instead of defaulting to what the average person does in projecting their own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings and motives through their lens. You flip it around and confront the reality inside the other person’s head, heart and soul. Now your listening to understand. Now your attention is on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.