Price: Empathic listening improves relationships

Ron Price
Special to The Daily Times
Ron Price

Today’s column is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released book PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work. Yes, I remember this is supposed to be a column that addresses marriage, but I think you’ll find the information you’re about to read will prove relevant and helpful in your marriage, and any other relationship that you value.

Chapter 16: A key to success in any aspect of life

"The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT."

— Alfred Brendel

Communication is a two‑way street. That might help to explain why there are so many head‑on collisions in conversations. Proactive listening, when used effectively, can greatly enhance understanding and avert many conflicts due to miscommunication.

In this chapter, we will continue with the theme of improved communication, but from a different angle. I’ve cited "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" several times in this book, and I absolutely recommend you consider investing the time, effort and resources necessary to read the book, or even better, take the course. It will be an investment that will pay great dividends.

Habit Four: "Think win-win" will indirectly serve to enhance communication as each party strives to be well motivated to truly understand the other. Habit Five: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" is my favorite of them all. When you give the gift of understanding to another person, your relationship and dealings with him or her will likely improve dramatically.

The problem is, however, it’s not easy to try to understand another when you want to be understood yourself. As the book's author Stephen R. Covey points out, this need causes you to listen to others from your own perspective, not theirs. People tend to listen to others in four less‑than‑effective ways.

Many of us have the bad habit of thinking our job is to give advice to anyone who comes to us with a problem. While it is certainly true that giving advice is appropriate in some circumstances and in some relationships, it is also true that most of us have plenty advice‑givers in our lives and not enough real listeners. Giving advice is typically based more on your own perspectives than the other’s.

Another ineffective manner of listening is to probe, ask questions and dig for more information. While this may sound like an attempt to truly understand the other, it is actually more designed to get you the information you seek than to allow the speaker to take the conversation where he or she wants it to go. Probing is self‑centered, not other‑centered. Like advising, it is appropriate in some situations, but it is often used when empathic listening would be far more appropriate.

A third manner of ineffective listening is what Covey calls "interpreting." This occurs when you filter the other’s comments through your own experiences. You attach meaning to what you hear based on your perspectives and paradigms, rather than those of the speaker. While not terrible, interpreting will cause you to miss out on what the speaker is saying and you will not be able to fully understand them.

The fourth component of ineffective listening is evaluating. This is similar to interpretation, but it involves assigning value to what you hear. You listen and determine whether what you hear is good or bad relative to your own way of looking at life. Again, it is normal to listen in this way, but it puts the focus more on yourself than on the speaker.

The "7 Habits" remedy to ineffective listening is empathy, or empathic listening (note I didn’t say pathetic listening). Empathic listening is listening with the true and deep‑seated desire to understand the other from their perspective. It is listening with the ears, the eyes and the heart. It has no agenda and certainly no desire to advise, fix, probe, interpret or evaluate.

When engaged in empathic listening, you put your self‑talk on hold while you focus entirely on the message from the other. This will never be considered an easy habit to develop, but it is certainly one with great power to improve relationships.

The late Carl Rogers, founder of client-centered therapy, said that he "found it to be of enormous value when I permit myself to understand the other person." Rogers pointed out the peculiarity of his words and asked, "Is it really necessary to permit oneself to understand another?" He went on to detail how we often listen with judgmental attitudes toward what we hear and that "very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statements is to the other person."

I hope the message of this chapter sounds familiar, as I also addressed it in chapter four. I just felt it worthy of another visit as this one practice can dramatically improve a relationship, perhaps more than any other known to man.

And, lest some may think this is "touchy‑feely" or some reason not appropriate in the real business world, I’ll close with words of wisdom from AJ Slivinski, a man I know to be very business savvy and successful. AJ writes: "A great technique I learned and used in business and in relationships was to have each person tell the other how and why they felt the way they did. Once Person A has stated his or her views, Person B must clearly demonstrate they fully understand that person by articulating his or her position and reason(s). They can’t move on to the next person until the first person says ‘Yes, I truly believe you understand my position and how I feel.’ The same process goes the other way and once both have agreed they understand each other, a solution is much more easily achieved."

Chapter Challenge: Determine to become an empathic listener. Set reminders on your smartphone to alert you that you are seeking to excel in this area. It will take work and focus at first, but I am confident you will so enjoy the benefits that it will soon become your normal manner of conversation.

Also consider searching online for "empathic listening." You will find an abundance of resources which go far beyond the scope of this book.

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.