I was facilitating a leadership workshop this week with a particularly vocal and rowdy group of people. We were having a good time learning great concepts when we slammed into the idea of empathic listening.
I presented the concepts around empathic listening. I gave real life examples. The class practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more. We spent 4.5 hours on this one concept. We get to the end and I ask the question, “What do you do if someone starts crying during your conversation?”
The answer, of course, is reflect their emotions and the situation, ask clarifying questions and then use “I” statements.
Did I mention how long we practiced?
Do you know what they said when I asked that question?
One lady calls out “Suck it up, Buttercup!”
Another lady rolls her eyes and says, “Jiminy Christmas, WHY are you crying?!?”
Really?!? More than half a day of a three day class, and I get this?
Why do people have so much trouble just LISTENING?
After all, we converse all the time. We have loads of opportunity to practice.
Turns out, we don’t actually listen very well… ever.
Most of the time we pay close attention to the beginning of the conversation, then we tune out while we formulate our reply. Then we tune back in, so we know when it’s our time to reply.
This works in normal conversations about facts and opinions, but when emotions are running high, this backfires.
Sometimes it takes us by surprise, because it happens during a ‘tune-out” time. “Holy cow, what just happened here?!?”
Sometimes we see it coming and try to extricate quickly. “Well, I can see I struck a nerve…Oh! Look at the time!” We break all eye contact and get out of there.
What is really required is a few minutes of empathy. If the scenarios above resonate with you, here’s a few tips to improve.
1. Provide the person with your undivided attention. Establish and maintain (non-creepy) eye contact.
2. Be non-judgemental. Don’t minimize or trivialize the speakers issue. The subject obviously triggered something in them. Allow them the right to feel it.
3. Read the speaker. Observe the emotions behind the words. Is the speaker angry, afraid, frustrated or resentful. Respond to the emotion as well as the words. Say things like “You’re angry about Melissa’s comment” or “You resent that Joe was selected for the project.”
4. Be Quiet. Don’t feel you must have an immediate reply. Often if you allow for some quiet after the speaker has vented, they themselves will break the silence and offer a solution. This is hard for us! We don’t like silence and feel compelled to fill it. In cases like this, silence is golden.
5. Assure your understanding. Ask clarifying questions and restate what you perceive the speaker to be saying. Keep the story about them. Use phrases like “What do you mean when you say ___” or “Tell me more about ____”
Once the emotions have been dealt with, the conversation can go back to “normal mode”.
Give it a try. You will be surprised at how much your relationships will improve. You might think you know someone because you know the facts of their life. Just wait until you know the emotions behind their life!
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: “I’m usually done hearing before they’re even done talking! I’m an exceptionally fast listener!”