A common default of humans is to listen with the intent of responding. We like to have something to say, something to add. We each filter everything we hear through our life experiences, our frame of reference. We then check what we hear against our autobiography and see how it measures up. Consequently, we decide prematurely what the other person means before they finish communicating. Although well-intended, this response offers a solution without really trying to understand the problem or that individual’s perspective. Listening deeply to and trying to truly understand others takes some effort and practice, but the connection, growth, and negotiating power that you gain are truly worth it.
Diagnosis Before Prescription
When a friend comes to you with an issue they’re having, how often do you respond with a story about your own similar experience and what you did to resolve it? We do this all the time in communication – prescribing a solution before diagnosing the problem. But think of how ridiculous this response would be in another context.
Picture this example: Imagine you go to the eye doctor because you’re having trouble with your vision. You start to explain your problem to the optometrist, and she quickly takes her own glasses off her face and tells you to try them on. The glasses do nothing to help your vision, but when you tell the doctor this, she insists the glasses work perfectly for her, so they should work for you too. No matter how hard you try, the glasses will not help your vision because they aren’t the correct prescription.
Instead of prescribing prematurely, it’s important to learn how to truly listen to others. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person. Empathic listening is the key to making deposits into “Emotional Bank Accounts”, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a withdrawal when they regard your efforts as manipulative, self-serving, intimidating, or condescending — because you didn’t understand what really mattered to them.
What does it mean to show Empathic Listening?
The best way is to mimic what the other person is telling you by rephrasing the content and reflecting the feeling. This gives the speaker psychological air and helps them work through their own thoughts and feelings. As they grow in confidence of your sincere desire to really listen and understand, the barrier between what’s going on inside them and what’s actually being communicated to you disappears. Once the speaker’s response is logical, then you can effectively ask questions and give counsel. But, the moment they fall back into emotion, you need to go back to empathic listening.
Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. Show this by rephrasing the content and reflecting the feeling of what the speaker is saying. It’s a paradox, in a sense, because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced. That means you have to really understand. Remember to diagnose before you prescribe.