The best relationships are built on the foundation of solid communication. True communication includes the ability to listen empathetically to each other. As emotional human beings, we all need empathy. It is a form of love, respect and understanding that has the ability to cultivate amazing personal relationships. Empathic listening makes conversations meaningful, inspirational, and fulfilling. The best leaders of the world are empathic listeners who know that it is more important to listen than it is to speak.
Unfortunately, most people tend to speak much more than they listen. By focusing on what others are saying, feeling and doing, you not only present yourself more effectively, but you also learn more. Empathic listening is a way of listening and responding to others that improves understanding and trust. If you want to build better relationships with your partner, your children, your boss or anyone else, you can use empathic listening to cultivate the connection.
There are 4 keys to empathic listening. They are:
1. Listen Rather Than Hear
Empathic listeners don’t just hear the conversation. They are listening. Listening involves focus and concentrated effort. Listening means paying attention to the other person’s story, use of language, voice, and body language. You are aware of both the verbal and non-verbal messages that are being relayed. Yet, empathic listening is not a passive process. You must stay engaged and active in the conversation.
Steve Covey has a famous quote that says “Seek first to understand, then be understood” which is the ultimate goal of listening. You must think of the message that is being passed on from the speaker’s perspective, without inserting your own opinions and judgments.
Most people have the physical ability to hear, but not nearly as many have the awareness to listen. Those that do, build stronger relationships and bonds with others. When you truly listen to another person, you send the message that you value them and what they are saying and feeling. By listening empathetically rather than just hearing, you encourage the speaker to fully express herself or himself without the fear of criticism, intimidation or interruption. You build trust which is an essential piece of all relationships. You are truly interested in what they are saying, and you are not judging them for saying it.
2. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Empathic listeners know the power of open-ended questions in a relationship. Open-ended questions are designed to encourage a meaningful answer that comes from the heart and soul of the recipient. The answer is open-ended. You are not trying to predict or instruct a specific response. Rather, you want to encourage an authentic response. These are high value questions to both you and the speaker. They create a learning experience for both parties because they evoke thought and reflection. They develop the conversation by encouraging openness. If you want to find out more about the person you are speaking to, including their dreams, wants, needs and problems, you can do so by using open-ended questions.
By asking open-ended questions, you are expressing a desire for deep communication with the recipient. You are showing respect and opening up the door for collaboration. Open-ended questions allow the relationship to grow because they are a bridge for understanding and effective communication. You can use open-ended questions with a loved one to build intimacy. You can use them with a boss to build trust and express interest in career growth. The options are endless because these questions are a powerful tool to cultivate personal relationships.
Example of a closed question: “do you like him/her?”– the answer is either yes or no.
Example of an open-ended question: “what is it about him/her that you like or dislike?” – the answer requires thought and is likely to be in-depth with opportunities to listen, understand, and perhaps probe with further questions.
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Empathic listeners always act as a mirror – reflecting back what they believe the speaker is saying and feeling to check for understanding. Reflective listening is important because it keeps both parties on the same page. The reflection allows the speaker to verify that you hear correctly, and it allows the listener to determine that the speaker is fully understood. Reflective listening helps the speaker to be heard and achieve his or her purpose in the conversation.
Through this type of listening, you may even help the speaker decide on a course of action or explore his/her feelings to a new depth. To use this type of listening, after the speaker has talked for several minutes and has come to a natural stop, summarize what you have heard and ask for verification that you are correct. For example, you might say “So if I understand correctly, you are frustrated that you have been unable to spend time alone on the weekends. Am I correct?”
Reflective listening is important to all relationships. It lets the speaker know that he or she has been heard and supported as well as understood. Reflection helps provide feedback and allows the speaker to reach deeper levels of expression. If you want to build healthy relationships and establish rapport, reflective listening is a definite way to accomplish just that.
4. Listen Without Giving Advice
Listening and giving advice are two fundamentally different strategies. Listening is encouraging the other person to share their story from their perspective. If you want to become a true empathic listener and cultivate amazing relationships, you must learn the art of listening without solving. While you may feel compelled to give advice or solve the speaker’s problem, this is not an effective method for communicating with empathy because listening isn’t about changing the other person.
The goal of listening is to connect with the person and build a relationship based on trust. It is challenging to listen to someone and not help them solve the problem they are speaking about, but by doing so you can build up a massive amount of trust. For example, you might listen to a problem completely and then simply say “Wow, I am so sorry that you had to go through that.” Unless someone specifically asks for your advice, it is best not to offer it. And if you do choose to give advice, make sure you listen first.
Empathic listening improves mutual understanding and builds trust. It is an essential skill to learn if you want to cultivate and maintain great relationships with friends, family, lovers, colleagues and anyone else you associate with.
Not only will empathic listening build a safe environment where the person you care about can release their emotions without fear, but it is also integral to reducing anxiety and tension. If there is someone in your life that you want to build a relationship with, work on the skills outlined above for empathic listening. Become the person onto which he or she can pour out their dreams, hopes, and worries without fear. Once you master this skill, watch your relationship flourish into a meaningful and deep connection, possible only through empathy.
Melissa Ricker is a nuclear engineer and a professional freelance writer specializing in career growth, technical writing and online entrepreneurship. She writes a blog, Engineered Motherhood, for working mothers who need help balancing career growth and time management.