Can you listen empathetically to a friend when she’s recovering from an eating disorder, or trying to lose weight? Do you know what to say to support her recovery? Deep, empathetic listening is not easy. Yet, we can learn how to offer this life-giving skill to ourselves, and to others.
The motto of my children’s school honors the importance of deep listening: Where your child is seen, heard, and understood. That’s it, in a nutshell—what we most need. We need to listen deeply to ourselves, and to each other. In the wake of deep listening, we feel empowered to act. We can move forward, tapping into our strength. It helps us live out what is most important to us.
Stop and think of a time when you were really heard. How did you feel?
By contrast, how do you feel when you’re not heard? Platitudes feel patronizing. When someone tries to rush in and fix us, we may feel bullied. Trying to be right—showing us what we “need” to do—makes us feel defensive (How many times do we talk this way, internally, to ourselves? I know I do this!).
Problem solving, or trying to rush in and make us feel better, can make us feel overlooked. I remember a friend trying to console me about my sadness over moving. He said, in so many words, “You’ll get over it.” While he was well intentioned, it made me feel invalidated—like my feelings weren’t okay. The reality was, I was sad, mourning the loss of my life as I’d known it. By saying, “You’ll get over it,” I didn’t feel better
—it just made me feel alone.
Instead, here’s what can help. Here are six ways to help you listen empathetically:
1. Drop the judgment.
Drop the “should”—the idea that you, or someone else should be feeling different. The truth is that your feelings are what they are. If you’re feeling sad, overwhelmed, happy, excited, nervous, scared, or a mix of all of the above, honor that. Allow your feelings to exist.
When you’re listening to someone else, allow their feelings to exist. Don’t try and talk them out of their feelings. You can even affirm, “I hear that you’re feeling discouraged.” Once we feel heard, we feel less defensive. We’re more open to finding solutions.
2. Soothe your reactions.
All sorts of things come up when we listen. We may think about how what they’re saying relates to us. We may go off on a tangent about our own stuff, our own feelings, and then wander to thinking about our grocery list … it happens!
When your attention wanders, it’s okay. Come back. Come back and listen to what the other person is saying.
What about when you start a tailspin into your own stuff? Soothe the thoughts that are triggered in you, by being present for the other person. You can even say shhh to yourself, when you notice your stuff is jumping up and down for your attention. Saying to yourself, I’ll come back to you later, can reassure those fears that are clamoring for your attention. Then you can focus not on yourself, but on listening.
3. Mirror back what you’re hearing.
A great way to do this is to say, “What I’m hearing you say is … ” Having someone else summarize what we’re saying can be incredibly helpful, especially if we feel muddled, and we’re not sure ourselves! There’s the relief of, Ah, yes! They know how I feel, and they’re putting it into words. We instantly relax in this loving belonging. We feel reassured that someone understands us. We feel connected, instead of separate and alone.
In addition to mirroring their feelings, you can also mirror their intentions, something that is taught in motivational interviewing. You can do this by saying: “I hear your desire to _____,” or “I hear your commitment to _____,” or “I hear your willingness to ____.”
4. Honor a virtue. Mirror back their strength.
Linda Popov, founder of the The Virtues Project, calls deep listening “spiritual companioning.” She suggests honoring virtues as a way of listening. For example, let’s say someone tells you how they want to try yoga, and yet they are scared to try. You may mirror the virtues you see in them, such as courage in moving through fear. You might say to them: “I see your persistence and courage in trying yoga, even though you feel nervous.”
With this approach, you honor the mix—both their hesitation to try something new, and their ability to move through it.
For more help, there is a list of virtues at VirtuesProject.com.
5. Honor their needs.
What deep needs are driving their behavior? Can you mirror these back to them?
For example, if someone shares how they find themselves bingeing after long days at work, you can say to them, “What I’m hearing is your need for play. When your need isn’t met, you try and meet it by bingeing.”
If they talk about how much they love browsing bookstores, you can affirm to them, “I hear that you’re going to meet your need for play by spending a few hours in a bookstore.”
You can find a list of needs at the Center for Non-Violent Communication website.
6. Affirm their worth.
You can share your gratitude for their sharing. You can share the virtues or needs in you, which are met in their sharing. This helps us feel connected to each other, less alone, and less separate.
For example, you can say, “I felt empowered listening to you, because sharing your fears and desires helped me feel less alone, and more able to move forward. Thank you for being open and trusting me with your feelings.”
Holidays mean friends and families, but it ought mean more than just long trips, big dinners, and gifts. The best gift you can give is to really, really listen—first with yourself, and then with others. In deep listening, we all come home.