Michael Nicholas, PhD wrote a book entitled The Lost Art of Listening which explores this topic in great detail. As you might guess the book is focused on our need for others to actually listen and what happens when this need isn’t met.
One of my favorite quotes from this book is, “The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person”.
This impacted me because we often believe that we can multi-task and “listen” to others, me included, when in actuality we cannot. We may be able to physically check facebook while changing the laundry and carrying on a conversation with our spouse about their day. But do you really think we are listening and fully understand that person? Often due to societal pressure to be everywhere at once we forget the importance of simply being present in one setting. What happens is we now do two or three things poorly rather than one thing great. And that first priority should be to those relationships in your life… Facebook can wait (and trust me, I do enjoy my facebook time).
Going back to the quote above, I wanted to explore what empathy is and how it is important in listening. To begin, empathy is an ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the feeling but you can see why they could feel that way. I know you might be thinking, ‘how can this help in all my relationships? This sounds like something between couples. But I assure you it applies to all situations. Given that humans are very social beings our self-esteem and opinions of ourselves are based on how much genuine attention we receive from others. It serves as a way for us to test our behavior, ideas, goals etc… and determine if they are worth pursuing. Imagine you overhear your boss, whom you professional admire, talking to a co-worker about how he wants this co-worker to present your proposal at the meeting. You have worked every night for the past two week sacrificing family time and your sanity to create this proposal and you were hoping it might lead to a promotion, now your co-worker will get all the credit. How do you feel?
This is where empathy comes into play. Your boss most likely did not think about how his actions would affect you. Can you imagine if you felt this way about your spouse? If your spouse was the one ignoring all the hard work you have been doing you might feel sad, disrespected, unappreciated or angry. Are these qualities healthy for a relationship? No, so how do you make sure you and your spouse aren’t undermining each other’s feelings of self-esteem and security in the relationship? You respect each other enough to LISTEN without distraction. I am definitely not guilt free when it comes to this concept. I have a very active six month old, my own hobbies and my social media outlets. So naturally when my husband would begin talking medical jargon from work I would tune him out; thinking I have other things to worry about. Until I realized I how much it was hurting him and our relationship. I started paying attention to his facial expressions when I would tap on my facebook app and respond “uh huh” as I scrolled from through the newsfeed. He went from looking excited and full of energy to tired and disconnected himself. I couldn’t believe I was causing this. So I started setting down my phone, looking him in the eyes and asking questions. The change in our dialogue has been dramatic and I know it is because I started thinking about how it would make me feel if he were ignoring me when I was trying to tell him about my day. While I understand that our society demands multi-tasking and being ‘plugged in’ at all times. I challenge you to make listening with empathy the rule rather than the exception in your relationships. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how you feel.
Jessica has spent her career working in the non-profit mental health field. She has graduate degrees in Counseling Psychology/Marriage and Family Therapy Licensure Preparation and Education/Instructional Leadership and a BA in Psychology. She has worked in a variety of settings including group homes, behavioral health agencies, universities and healthcare clinics. She has experience working as an individual, family, couple and group counselor for both children and adults. Her personal interests within the mental health field include PTSD treatment and the emotional challenges of parenthood.