Empathic Listening

One of the greatest gifts we can give another human being is our unconditional presence. To do this well, we must be able to be receptive, without judgment or expectation, to put aside our own needs and concerns and be genuinely available in a warm, heartfelt manner. Yet we live in a culture that teaches and rewards us for being exactly the opposite: reactive, proactive, independent, assertive and opinionated. As a result, many people equate listening with passivity and weakness. We also live in a multi-sensory commercialized media world that invites us to be distracted from intimate connection with others. It’s wonderful that communication today can be lightning fast, yet email or instant messaging is a poor substitute for live, unconditional human presence. So how can we learn to be fully present with and for each other?

We can do this by learning to listen in a genuinely empathic way. Empathic listening integrates an attitude of childlike curiosity with the grace of a world-class ballerina, the compassion of Mother Theresa and the peace of Thich Nhat Hanh. When we listen¬†empathically, we are fully available and present for the other. We have no preconceived notions about what’s going on with them. We approach them freshly, with Suzuki Roshi’s “Beginner’s Mind”, where possibilities are many. We are not busy rehearsing our rebuttal to what they are saying, just waiting for a moment to break in and interrupt. We do not care if we are right and they are wrong. We have no need to defend ourselves or to prove ourselves brilliant, insightful or witty. We do have a burning desire to understand what the essence of this person is all about in this moment. We are pure awareness, soaking in the words but going far beyond the words and fully resonating with the other energetically.

At a workshop last year a couple had been struggling with communication issues. “I know how to listen,” the man started defensively, obviously impatient and angry with his lover. “The problem is she never hears me. She’s always telling me how wrong I am.” The woman said nothing, her face blank and expressionless. “What do you think is going on for her, what do you think it’s like to be living with you in this relationship?” we inquired. “I don’t know, I guess she’s…well who knows, she’s always angry at me because of what happened to her as a child. She thinks everything is my fault. She blames me for everything.” “Yes but what is it like to be her right now? What does it feel like inside her skin?” “I already told you,” he said, annoyed, his anger rising, “she’s always in a bad mood, always mad at me, always blaming me.”

We then invited the man to listen in a different way. We had the couple sit together, facing one another, looking each other in the eye, and asked them not to speak but rather to breathe in synchrony with one another. After just a few minutes, the rhythm of their breaths gradually harmonized. Their faces softened. “Now let’s find out what’s really going on for her right now.” She looked up tentatively, afraid to speak, afraid of his reaction. “Can you tell him, from the deepest place within yourself, what’s going on for you right now in this relationship?” She nodded silently, letting the words form within. “I…I…well I’m just so sad, sad and hopeless. And I guess scared, too.” She stopped, waiting for the anger which was certain to come. But instead of anger, he continued to breathe with her. He nodded and looked at her in a way that let her know that he got it, he understood in a way she had never felt before. Her face brightened, with the frail edges of hope arising at the corners of her eyes. She continued, “I love you so much and yet…and yet we’re so ugly with each other at times that it scares me.” This time he put his arms around her, they hugged tenderly, and both began sobbing. No more words were spoken, yet these few sentences uttered with unconditional presence proved to be the beginning of a healthier, more loving relationship. Months later they both pointed to this simple, brief interaction as the pivotal moment that their relationship began to improve.

The practice of empathic listening is also illustrated by the story of the famous professor who visited the Zen monk, supposedly to learn of his teachings. As the professor rattled on discussing his philosophies, the monk asked if he would like some tea. The professor nodded, barely pausing in his dissertation of his latest theory. The monk filled up the professor’s teacup, and kept right on pouring after the cup was full. The tea overflowed the cup and went all over the floor, yet the monk kept right on pouring. “What are doing?” yelled the professor. “Can you not see the cup is full?” “Yes I can,” said the monk, smiling. “This cup is like your mind, so full of your own ideas that there is no room in it to really hear anything I or anyone else might have to teach you.”

Keep your cup open, especially with those closest to you. As Stephen Covey puts it, seek to understand before being understood. Give those in your life the precious gift of your unconditional presence. By doing so, you create an opportunity to journey to a greater depth of intimacy and connection than was ever possible before.