Stephen R. Covey says in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” that
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
It seems we care more about what we will reply. We worry more about what we’ve just said. We interrupt just because we fear we’ll forget what we want to say.
In my opinion, genuinely listening is an art, a combination of intention, empathy, focus, and timing, especially when we hear something that we don’t like.
The intention is the first and most important element of listening. Set the intention to stay connected with the other person, to be present, to create a space for them, to be themselves (even if their words are hard to hear for you).
Sometimes, the things that seem simple give the biggest results.
The second element is empathy. Give empathy in any situation, as much as you can, as often as you can.
Be very careful, though, because there is a big difference between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy is a huge obstacle to empathic listening and consists of various forms of:
- Giving unsolicited advice: “I think you should read this new book on how billionaires spend their day.” / “If I were you, I would look for a new job.”
- Explaining away when the other is expressing the impact of your behavior on them: “I would have called to tell you I’m late, but the bus was so crowded.” / “But I didn’t mean to upset you.”
- Correcting: “You are the one who started all this competition in this department and now you don’t want it anymore.” / “I beg your pardon? I’ve never said that!”
- Consoling: “It’s not your fault. You did your best. It could have been worse.”
- Storytelling: “I know exactly how you feel. Yesterday, I was on my way to…”
- Shutting down the feelings: “Cheer up. It’s not like the world ends.” / “Quit being such a baby.”
- Commiserating: “Poor you. How can people be so mean?”
- Interrogating: “When did all this happen? What made you do that? Why didn’t you call them?”
- Educating: “What can you learn from this? If you weren’t so eager to prove your point, maybe they would have listened to you.”
- One-upping: “That’s nothing. Children die of hunger in Africa, and you worry about THIS?”
So, giving sympathy instead of empathy means grabbing the spotlight from the speaker and put it on you.
Moreover, if you pay attention, I am sure you can see that underneath all these forms of sympathy there’s the message of “You are wrong. I am right. You are a bad person. I know/do better than you. Something is wrong with you.”
Empathic listening, on the other hand, is connecting with another human being exactly as they are, without judgment; giving them space to express what’s alive in them, without dwelling on your thoughts or feelings about the exchange.
In sympathy, it’s about you, not the speaker; while in empathy it’s about the speaker.
The third element is the focus. The focus is on the other’s feelings and needs. Depending on the dynamics of the situation, you can choose between guessing silently, so you don’t interrupt, or aloud and you can say something like:
“It seems you are disappointed because you’d like more support.”
“Are you upset because you value loyalty?”
Whenever you catch yourself thinking about something other than the speaker’s feelings and needs, just come back gently. Avoid judging yourself, because that would only mean staying more unfocused.
The fourth component is timing— to check if we understood what the other is getting through, to check if they are ready to hear our part of the story, to check if they want support to brainstorm solutions for their situation.
Honestly, I don’t have a hack for this. I would encourage you to use your intuition about it.
I hope my guidelines help you listen better next time and have stronger relationships.
All the best,