Remember the days before we were all staying at home. You asked your partner to swing by the office supply store to pick up ink for the printer, and the dog ended up spending the day with a very confused groomer. “No worries” you tell your confused mate who left the note detailing what you had asked lying on the counter. “I’ll swing by the office supply place next to the groomers. Just don’t let dinner burn. The timer will go off in 45 minutes…” Later as you try to swallow the blackened lasagna, you can’t tell if the bitter taste is the burned food or the resentment from having to spend an extra hour in rush hour traffic retrieving the freshly shampooed dog who had been groomed a week ago, and picking up the ink you needed. As the scorched mess makes it third trip around the plate at the end of your fork you hear. “Are my two suits still in the car? I leave for the airport at 5:00 am and so I need to get packing.” What suits? What trip?
While the above scenario may be a bit far-fetched, we all experience those moments when we feel like we are living in a parallel universe with our loved ones. Partners, spouses, parents, and kids often leave us wondering “did I just dream that I told them to (fill in the blank)?” Missed cues, distracted listening, and our pressing need to disconnect from the stress of our daily lives often leads to having no idea of what is going on in the lives of those we hold most dear. We often blame others for not knowing what we need just as we can be constantly out of step about the needs of our partners. The old refrain “you never listen to me” is not even close to the real issue. You have to decide whether or not what your partner and loved ones have to say is important, and then find a way to make the space to hear them.
Fear not! Help is on the way. In fact, according to William R. Miller in his Book Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Listening, the capacity to listen and understand empathetically is hardwired into our brains. We desire to know our valued others and to also be known by our valued others. Our brains are not only hardwired for empathetic understanding they are hardwired for secure connection. The need for secure connection is with us, as John Bowlby who researched the need for secure attachment said, the need for secure attachment is with us “from the cradle to the grave.” Our basic need to be securely attached cannot be realized if we cannot listen with empathy and understanding to our partners, friends, and our families.
Many of us have read or heard the rules of empathic listening before:
- Be non-judgmental
- Give the person your undivided attention
- Listen carefully to feelings and facts
- Show that you are listening carefully
- Don’t be afraid of silence
- Restate and paraphrase
How do we put these 7 tips into action? Dennis Rivers, MA, a communications skills teacher has put together excellent communications skill resources at his website. Check out his website and do the Empathy-Listening in Action exercise. This exercise starts with brief video by Brene Brown where is describes what empathy actually is and then leads the participate through the exercise.