Empathy and Listening for a Successful Life and a Successful World

There has been a lot of interest in empathy of late. Jeremy Rifkin has written a best selling book, The Empathic Civilization in which he makes the case that humans are, by their very nature, empathic. He says that for human progress to continue we must tap into our natural inclination to be cooperative, compassionate and empathic …it is our cooperative, empathic nature that has made us such a successful species.

Others are discovering the importance of empathy. Medical schools are looking for ways to teach doctors to increase their empathy when working with patients and colleagues. One of the more successful methods is called Narrative Medicine. Developed by Doctor Rita Charon (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_58.html) of Colombia University it focuses on the use of empathy in the practice of medicine with predictably positive results.

And recently there has been speculation on the empathic skills of President Obama as he leads America through the mid-term elections. Clearly, interest in empathy is growing.

So, what exactly is empathy? Empathy is the ability of one person to experience the feelings of another viscerally.

More precisely:

“When we feel empathy for someone we are getting emotional information about them and their situation. By collecting information about other people’s feelings, you get to know them better. As you get to know others on an emotional level, you are likely to see similarities between your feelings and theirs, and between your basic emotional needs and theirs. When you realize that someone else’s basic emotional needs are similar to yours, you are more able to identify with them, relate to them and empathize with them.” ( http://www.eqi.org/empathy.htm#Empathy%2C+Understanding+and+Compassion)

If I listen and observe you well I can actually gain an experience that mirrors how you are feeling. This can mean, for example, that if you have joy I will have empathic joy with you. Most parents have experienced this when one of their children has had a success or a happy event.

Similarly, one person can experience another’s pain.

We can each learn to be more empathic. I say more empathic because we are all born with a natural inclination to be empathic. We can see this, for example, in babies as they imitate people who interact with them.

Sadly, many of us have been taught that the world is a competitive place and that we must look out for number one or be trampled by the competition. This has led us to lose some of our inclination to be empathic. But we all search for connection with others, with a partner, with children, with friends, with colleagues and so on. This is another manifestation of our natural inclination to be empathic.

So, how can we learn to be more empathic? One key skill is to be good listeners. And listening is a skill that can be learned. There are several programs that have been designed to improve people’s ability to listen. One is Non-Violent Communication the Language of Compassion, developed by Marshall Rosenberg  (http://www.cnvc.org/). Another is Listening Power, the foundational tool of the Emotional Fitness Institute founded by Warren Redman.

Non-Violent Communication is often referred to as “NVC”.

The basic building blocks of empathic listening using NVC are:

As a listener I:

1. Identify the situation event or circumstance the other person is describing;
2. State the feeling I imagine the person has in regard to that event or circumstance (mad, sad, glad, fear, guilt, shame etc.);
3. State the need I imagine the other person may have and
4. Ask the person what they’d like based on the above

There is a lot there. This process like any skill takes practice.

The second approach to empathy is the Emotional Fitness Institute’s Listening Power.

Here is how Listening Power works:

Element one: Total Focus on the Other Person

To be an empathic listener:
I must listen to the other person and totally focus on what they are saying. This is their time to be heard by me. The gift to me is hearing what they say completely and accurately.

Element two: A Five Step Structure

This structure helps me focus totally on the other person

Here is the structure:

When listening to another person:

1. Agree on a Contract for that conversation (how long, conditions etc.)
2. Identify the Topic
3. Ask Clarifying Questions (this and summarizing are the heart of listening but the first two steps are key to doing this successfully)
4. Summarize what I think I’ve heard and ask if this is correct
5. Once I’ve summarized accurately, support the person in finding appropriate actions

Both of these processes, NVC and Listening Power, are designed to help people be better listeners. If you use either of these tools you will become a more empathic listener.

Importance of Empathy to You

No matter who you are, listening effectively is going to help you with any relationship you may have or that you may want to create. Just on a human basis this will lead to stronger friendships, stronger business relationships and better relationships with those close to you.

I hope I’ve convinced you that using good listening skills can lead to gaining much more complete information on any topic.

This very brief discussion of two very powerful listening tools is intended to give you the bare essentials to help you become a more empathic listener. If you’d like more information, advice or to receive training in this area please contact Bruce Rosove (see contact information below).
Bruce is Certified as a Life Coach and Coach Instructor by the Emotional Fitness Institute. He is also certified in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) by the American Board of Neuro Linguistic Programming. Prior to entering private practice, he worked for the Canadian Employment Service (part of HRSDC) designing policies and training counsellors in the use of the new counselling tools he developed.
Contact Bruce at:
Telephone: 613 233 8013 or Email: Bruce.Rosove@Rogers.com
This article copyright Bruce Rosove 2010-09-28 used by permission.


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