Price: Empathetic listening improves relationship

By Ron Price
Special to The Daily Times
Ron Price

Hopefully by now you know that I have written my first book, "PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work." It’s a 99 cent e-book available at Amazon, and I am so pleased that I have finally sent the sequel, or Toolbox edition, to my editor. While the title of the book sounds like it is only for workplace situations, this is simply not accurate. 
Relationships are relationships. While marriage is certainly one very important relationship, there are core components that are essential for the overall health and success of any relationship.

Today’s column is a chapter from the e-book that I believe can greatly enhance your marriage. As you read, please consider ways to apply the concept to your spouse on a frequent and regular basis. And, I dare say, there is no better time to start than right now.

Chapter Four: Yield — Do this and you'll be so glad you did

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new. — Dalai Lama

Here’s a secret about every single one of us: We all want to be understood. Perhaps that’s not earth shaking news, but that realization can have a dramatically positive impact on our relationships, on our very lives. Everyone we know wants to be understood.

This desire for others to understand us has existed from our earliest days. As infants we were at times cold, hungry, soiled or lonely. We cried, often wailed, hoping someone would understand and remedy our situation.

This desire, more accurately need, to be understood does not fade after infancy. It grows deeper and more forceful. We’ve all witnessed a toddler get exasperated when he or she tried to communicate and was not understood.

Most of us can think back to elementary school and how desperately we wanted to fit in with and be recognized by classmates and teachers. Our longing to be understood did not wane through junior high or high school or whatever post-high-school education we may have pursued. The desire for others to understand us is still powerful in our lives today.

Many have written about how important listening is in maintaining healthy relationships. Listening, however, is a skill that is not always easy to practice. While learning to listen well is vital, the attitude we bring into a conversation has more to do with the eventual outcome than the skill level of the participants.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.” To listen well to another human being, we must choose to make listening a priority. We must prevent our thoughts or distractions from getting in the way.

We all have many stressors and much busyness in our lives. To take the time to actually suspend all of our “stuff” and just focus on another’s story will not happen unless we resolve to make it happen.

Every one of us has had the uncomfortable and disrespectful experience of talking to someone who we knew was not really listening. We are likely guilty of having done the same to others — pretend like we were listening when our mind was really somewhere else.

When the relationship isn’t very important, or if what the other is sharing has no intrinsic value, pretend listening probably won’t cause too much trouble. If we care about the other person at all, however, and if we are willing to admit that we might still have a thing or two to learn about life, then fully listening is absolutely the best choice.

In their book "The Power of Full Engagement," Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz make the point that to truly succeed in life — by your definition of success — you must be totally in the game. They suggest we cannot do life haphazardly or halfheartedly and expect positive results. Full-engagement listening is an excellent area to focus on in your significant relationships.

Full-engagement listening is also known as empathy. Loehr and Schwartz describe empathy as the “letting go of our own agenda, at least temporarily.” Empathy is listening not only with the ears, but with the heart. It involves deeply listening not just to what another is saying with their mouth, but what message is coming from their core. It is looking for the real meaning and intent of the communication.

We often engage in a conversation on a surface level only and never get to deeper issues; this is usually because one or both feel it is somehow not safe to bring up these hidden issues, thoughts or feelings.

In his groundbreaking book "Emotional Intelligence," Daniel Goleman writes about the value of empathy in maintaining healthy relationships. He refers to an attribute of empathy, which he calls “non-defensive listening and speaking.”

Even in the midst of a heated conversation, we can decide to not take the other’s remarks as a direct assault, but more as a venting of frustration. By focusing on the actual message, we can keep ourselves from taking offense and ultimately help the other to calm down and speak less aggressively.

No one ever said it would be easy, but empathetic, non-defensive listening can absolutely help to transform and improve a struggling relationship and avoid conflict. No matter how poorly we may have listened in the past, even the worst listener can become a competent empathetic listener. As I cited earlier, however, you must have the proper attitude toward the experience of listening. Or, as Zig Ziglar put it: “You gots to have the want to.”

Don’t despair: skills can be learned, attitudes chosen, relationships improved and conflicts can be successfully and productively averted.

Also, note that yielding to someone is not only a nice thing to do, but it is extremely helpful in avoiding and/or resolving disputes. Dean Rusk said it well: “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears — by listening to them.”

For more knowledge and skill in this area, I highly recommend you read "Just Listen: Discover the Secret for Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone" by Mark Goulston. This book provides numerous insights and tips for impactful listening, written in an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable manner.

Determine to make empathetic listening to others a major drive in your life. Purchase a book, attend a webinar, take a class — do whatever you need to do to grow in this most important life skill.

Ron Price is the owner and operator of Productive Outcomes Inc. and the author of "PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work," an e-book available on Amazon. He can be reached at 505-324-6328.