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5-Steps to Empathic Listening

beyond active listening to curiosity of needs/values

"Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing." -- Marshall Rosenberg, PhD.

  • Want more connection, more friends?
  • Do you want to contribute to collaboration and understanding?
  • Would you like to be a more effective leader, facilitator, teammate?

Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Rather than listening with empathy, we often resort to giving advice, story telling, consoling or interrogating -- leaving others disappointed and often frustrated. Empathy is helpful for everyone, but it's an essential skill for the services industry, development teams and all leadership roles! Empathic listening will help you understand the other person's experience and simultaneously give them the sense that they are heard and understood.

Empathy is most effective when you're present to the current moment, you've taken care of yourself both physically and emotionally, and you're genuinely curious about the experience of the other person. Your intention is to understand the heart of their experience, and support whatever shows up for them next. You listen with empathy only as long as you're genuinely able to stay present, curious and supportive -- to force yourself to continue beyond that would be detrimental to you and your relationship to others.

Through these 5 steps, you will learn the basics of empathic listening based on the principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

1. Get present and curious with intention to listen.

Getting present can sometimes be a challenge, and it's so important for empathy -- it's hard to give empathy if you don't have it, otherwise your own stuff gets in the way. If you notice you're triggered and reacting, go to this blog post on "8-steps to stop trigger bullets." Give yourself some empathy: Start with a few slow, deep breaths. Notice and acknowledge any thoughts, judgments, or stories you've made up. Listen, acknowledge and allow any of your feelings to be expressed. Tune into your needs that are most alive for you right now. Once you notice becoming naturally curious about the other person, you're ready to listen empathically.

2. Listen for something with intensity.

You're listening for a snippet of what the other person is saying that has some intensity of feeling. It might be challenging to identify something with intensity of the other person is disconnected from their feelings; if this is the case, listen for something that has intensity for you -- remember that snippet that stands out so you can Quote it later.

3. Imagine what they value inside -- what they really want, silently guessing a universal Need/Value.

What is it that the other person really values around the snippet that you identified? This step is about silently imagining/guessing the universal human need/value in the snippet that you intend to quote later. I like to categorize needs and values into four categories:

  • Physical: Air, Water, Shelter, Food, Touch, Movement, Procreation
  • Personal: Autonomy, Expression, Creativity, To be seen, Mastery, Empowerment, Space, Ease, Effectiveness, Stimulation, Aliveness, Honesty, Authenticity, Well-Being, Rest, Integrity, Learning, Growth
  • Interpersonal: Community, Belonging, Inclusion, Support, Partnership, Companionship, Collaboration, Consideration, Empathy, Reciprocity, Equity, Connection, Closeness, Peace, Shared-Play, Collective Learning (Evolution) 
  • Transcendent: Meaning, Purpose, Love, Contribution, Flow, Beauty, Harmony, Communion, Intimacy, Spiritual Connection

Pick just one of these needs/values for use in the next step.

4. Voice your understanding of what's being said in the form of an empathy question.

This is the active step where you finally voice your empathy guess to the other person. Empathy is not about getting it perfect, it's more about your intention to understand and support them. Empathy that's "off mark" can still be supportive to the other person. Recall your Quote and the Need/Value you identified, and express them using the following template:

"When you said <insert Quote>,
where you wanting <insert Need/Value> ?"

The word "wanting" could be substituted by anything that flows better in the sentence, such as {Valuing, Needing, Longing for}. To simplify things, you could even skip the first segment with the Quote. What's important is to voice the Need/Value in the form of a question.

5. Pause/listen, wait for a response -- how was it received?

Stop. Give the other person time to respond -- sometimes it takes a while (trust that the other person knows best about their inner experience). Listen and watch the other person to see how what you said landed for them. If it landed well, they will usually keep talking, adding another layer of their experience -- return to step 1 and repeat the process of empathic listening. In some cases, the other person may have a cathartic experience -- hold a silent presence for them, supporting them in staying in whatever feelings are moving for them.

 

Remember that empathy is about being present to the other person's experience. Resist the urge to keep talking -- or better yet, return to step 1 to give yourself empathy, repeat the sequence.

Note: If you notice a strong desire to keep talking after you expressed your simple empathy guess, consider the following:

  • Do you believe that what you say "has to be perfect"? Are you wanting to show your skill at empathy?

... (pause)...

  • Is it around your desire to contribute a solution?

... (pause)...

  • Perhaps your want to be heard right now, to tell your own story?

... (pause) ...

If your own needs are getting in the way of being present for the needs of the other person -- Stop. Don't pretend that you're able to be present in a listening space. Maybe it's time for you to take a break, or request that the other person hear you.

Next Steps

It takes practice to get good at listening with empathy. Consider joining one of the practice groups that I host that are listed on Meetup and Facebook. You can also search for practice groups worldwide through the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

The steps and concepts presented here are based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg. I provide NVC Coaching (first 30 minutes free) to help you listen with empathy and to connect with others.

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