Overcoming Barriers to Empathic Listening

You committed to becoming a better listener. You set your intention to pay close attention to the person speaking and to work at deeper understanding. Then, something happened that got in the way. I call that something noise.

External noise such as traffic, barking dogs, crying babies, can get in the way of us hearing what is said, but why and how to manage it is relatively straight forward. Internal noise, however, isn’t always recognized or managed. Not only does internal noise get in the way of us hearing what is said, but it can also result in our misunderstanding what we do hear. Some forms of internal noise include judgments, sympathy, camaraderie, your similar experience, wanting to give advice and counsel. Unless managed, these reactions prevent us from hearing and understanding another. We may look like we are listening, and, we have taken in enough to have these reactions, but we are not listening empathically. We are in our own world, not fully understanding the world of the other person.

These reactions are natural and can provide useful information. However, if you express them, you will most likely cut the speaker off from their train of thought and switch the focus of the conversation from them to you. However, merely suppressing these reactions is only part of the solution. Your attention to them can distract you from listening and keep you from hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. So, what do you do? I invite you to follow this 5 Step Process for Managing Your Internal Noise so you can stay focused empathically on the other person.

First: Set your intention to be fully present with the other person and to understand their perspective.

Second: Pay close attention to the speaker and listen to what they are communicating, both verbally and non-verbally.

Third: Notice when your mind has wandered, and you are no longer paying attention. Usually, I discourage note taking because it is distracting. However, here, if a few notes, will help to release your attention, go ahead.

Fourth: Bring your mind back to the other person and what they are expressing. If it was a brief lapse, just go to the next step. If you have missed something you think might be crucial, admit that your mind has wandered, apologize if that feels appropriate, and ask them to go back so you can fully understand.

Fifth: Reset your intention, go back to paying attention and listening. Continue with this process until the other person feels understood.

By the way, don’t add to your internal noise by being critical of yourself for becoming distracted. Getting distracted is normal, and you are working on staying focused.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin to practice empathic listening: 1) Keep questions to a minimum, and if used, make sure they are open-ended and from a place of curiosity. Not asking questions will feel strange at first since we often think about questioning as a good way of getting information. However, most questions guide the conversation and often imply the answer we want. If you just listen and reflect what you have understood, the other person decides where to go. 2) When reflecting back your understanding, don’t parrot what you have heard, say it in your own words. Remembering someone’s words is not the same as understanding their meaning. 3) Demonstrating understanding is not agreeing. Your mind will not explode from holding two or more realities at the same time. 4) Don’t worry if you don’t get it right when you demonstrate what you have understood. If your intention truly is to understand and you are open to feedback, the other person will sense this, and they will not take offense if you don’t understand at first. It is also possible that you did understand, but hearing it reflected back causes the other person to rethink, perhaps without even realizing they are rethinking. And, even if your reflections isn’t correct, your attempt will be appreciated, and you are now one step closer to empathy. Keep trying.

Think about how your business and personal relationships will benefit from empathic listening. What kind of noise keeps you from being a better listener? If you are ready to engage more fully and begin to enjoy the deeper, more meaningful relationships that evolve, schedule a free, no-obligation Communication Transformation Consultation by clicking on this link.

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