How to Listen and Communicate with More Empathy

How to Listen and Communicate with More Empathy

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Why is showing empathy so important? Because you want to have happy or at least mutually respectful relationships.

You have a choice about how you approach people. In this amazing corner of space in which humans live, relationships are central to your well-being, but they also present you with the most challenges. Though you may not care for someone’s personality, or your values conflict with theirs, you can still treat them with a basic sense of namaste to convey the feeling: Despite our differences, I respect the spirit within you.

Why is showing empathy so important? Because you want to have happy or at least mutually respectful relationships. Because you are choosing compassion and tolerance over drama, ego, or resentment. Because you want to understand those you care about so you don’t wound, alienate, or lose these dear ones.

Empathy’s role is to nourish and repair relationships rather than rupturing them. It’s all too easy to damage a friendship or a marriage. Tending to the cherished people in your life is like tending to a garden. You must support the health of each relationship in this basic way. Finding empathy brings healing into your relationships and helps mend the hurt you might have caused each other.

When considering an overall approach to relationships, clarify your intention. As I have, you can begin by making the following empathy vow (or create one of your own):

I will try to find empathy even in difficult circumstances and when I am upset. I will not make loved ones into the enemy.

May this simple vow set the tone for listening and responding to people. It helps stop you from demonizing loved ones because you’re a prisoner to damaging emotional patterns. For example, accusing your spouse of “not caring” when they are actually just tired, or assuming that a close friend is rejecting you because she has been holed up in her office for days finishing a project. You imagine the worst rather than seeing reality.

To support healthy relationships, you want to understand another’s actual motives rather than your projected fears. It also may be appropriate to compromise or set a healthy boundary with unacceptable behavior. If there is emotional or physical abuse, where the person won’t change, you may decide to cut off contact. Do not wait around in abusive relationships if there is no evidence that a person will change; though they may offer empty promises. Even if someone is making gradual changes, it’s still okay to leave or take a break until more significant and lasting progress is made. This compassionate, clear-eyed, yet firm attitude can strengthen caring interactions and set limits for unhealthy communication.

Guidelines for Empathic Responses

Be aware that we directly affect each other’s well-being. This intriguing form of empathy attunement is called “emotional coregulation.” It exists because emotions and neurological signals are transmitted between people, especially loved ones. Your nervous system interacts with another’s to support mutual emotional balance, happiness, and health. Empathy helps you coregulate your relationships by mutually improving communication so you’re in sync with each other.

What is the difference between listening and responding? Empathic listening is basically a nonverbal act of unconditional positive regard. An empathic response is your chance to comment, guide, or give feedback about the person’s situation. Your response can range from simply, “I understand,” to brainstorming solutions. As part of showing empathy, it’s important to develop an overall policy for how you respond to others who want support or to resolve conflicts.

The Three A’s of Empathy will help keep this top of mind when you practice empathic listening:

Attitude. It’s caring to acknowledge, “I hear that you are frustrated and upset.”
Attention. Offer your complete attention and say, “Tell me what is going on.”
Adjustment. Be reassuring and say, “Don’t worry. Let’s solve this problem together.”

An adapted excerpt from The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World by Judith Orloff, MD with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Learn more about the book.

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