|The Art of Listening May 2013|
In our hero’s quest to improve our relationships the greatest superpower we have is empathy. Empathy is the ability to connect to the emotions of another person, and it involves good old fashioned listening. Moving too fast, searching for a witty comeback, and looking for loop holes will distract us from empathic listening. We must slow down, lean in, and listen with our whole heart. This stillness sets the stage for improved understanding- there is no short cut.
If we focus on “understanding how we understand” we can enhance our superpower in our most precious relationships. Practice really does make a difference. Grab your cape for this hero's quest, it may get uncomfortable.
Daniel Goleman, our emotional intelligence yogi, has identified 3 distinct forms of empathy:
Cognitive: This is a mind to mind connection. When you tune into this element of empathy you are listening very carefully to how I perceive a problem in my life so you can understand my thinking. This may be hard because you may have a different viewpoint, but you actively put that aside to listen very carefully to my words, implied values, and the formation of my world view. You set the intention to respect our philosophical difference. People who have worked to enhance this skill spend time listening and clarifying ("Is this what you mean- do I have this right?") in their communications in an effort to understand. Cognitive empathy is a discipline of thought, with the emotional regulation of suspending any impulse to correct, influence, or defend.
Emotional: The feeling to feeling connection. When you are connecting with my feelings you are accepting and experiencing them with me. This can be painful because I might share feelings that are intense and if you care about me you will want me to feel better (and if I am mad you- you might want to get mad back). Emotional empathy is not about finding the solution; it is the full acceptance and “leaning into” the feelings of the other person. People who have advanced abilities in emotional empathy spend time listening, observing nonverbal cues, and reflecting feelings back ("You are exhausted, angry, and resentful") to fine-tune their understanding. Emotional empathy is the discipline of serving as a conduit of another person’s feelings without judgment, or resistance.
Compassionate: This is the call to action connection. When you are sensitized to my struggle and you choose to respond in a way that meets my need. Sometimes the action is subtle- you see that I am hungry and you offer me half of your sandwich. Other times the action is complicated- you watch the news and notice there has been a disaster and people are without supplies, so you go to the store and bring water. Compassionate empathy is engaging emotionally in another person’s experience, even though that requires extra effort, or inconvenience.
When we are using our superpower of empathy- we are taking a relational risk that may lead us to think, feel, or act differently than we would if we were detached. When we get really courageous we can try out all three forms at once. Here we go getting vulnerable again! It will transform our relationships if we let it. Will you take the risk?
"Motivation aside, if people get better at these life skills, everyone benefits: The brain doesn't distinguish between being a more empathic manager and a more empathic father." Daniel Goleman