In reading The New York Times this weekend, I was struck by a theme running through many of the articles I read. What to do if your friends’ political views differ from your own (here)... Strategies for healing a fractured America (here)… And the communication patterns of trees (by far my favorite article in this selection)...
The common element among these articles was the importance of listening. Listening to your friends’ political views without judgment in order to find empathy and build trust in your relationships. Listening to the people you disagree with in order for you to grow, and help us all find healing at the close of this tumultuous year. Listening to the world around you, if you are a tree, in order to establish your own community and thrive.
But listening to other people (let alone trees) can be a real challenge. Perhaps especially so when you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Whether that’s around the holiday dinner table (via Zoom, as the case may be) or in a mediation (also on Zoom), listening can be hard when the conversation is politically charged or otherwise volatile.
What often happens in negotiations, arguments, or other charged discussions, is that people shut their ability to listen down. Whether consciously or unconsciously, when the pressure increases, listening decreases. Instead, people retreat into themselves - planning clever retorts, plotting revenge, stewing in anger, or spiraling down an anxiety-induced abyss.
While these are of course normal human reactions, is this productive? Even healthy for us?
Generally, no. When you shut down, and there is a problem to be solved, you put yourself at a disadvantage and you jeopardize the possibilities for finding amicable solutions.
Refusing to listen to what you do not want to hear is a bad habit to dispense with right now. Here are suggestions for doing just that…
We know what empathy is… the ability to understand where someone else is coming from and to make the effort to appreciate what they are feeling. Empathetic listening is paying attention to what someone else is saying to you in order to establish a connection with them and gain a better understanding of their emotions in that conversation.
In negotiation, this can be an effective tool for not only building a connection with the person sitting across the proverbial negotiation table (whether a real table or a Zoom one). This in turn, helps to create an environment that is more conducive to open dialogues. When you demonstrate to others that you are interested in their perspective, and respect where they are coming from, you are more likely to have a discussion that is built on trust. Trust allows for honesty and it gives people space to let out the emotions they may otherwise have bottled up.
Empathetic listening is conveyed through non-verbal communication techniques. This means stopping whatever else you might have been doing - and focusing exclusively on the person talking to you. Here are some ways to practice empathetic listening:
When you are practicing empathic listening, try to refrain from talking as much as possible. This is not the time to ask questions, paraphrase what they are saying, or provide your insights. Even if you feel uncomfortable, don’t change the subject, interrupt, or dismiss someone’s feelings. For the most part, just be quiet and stay focused on that person.
Demonstrate your attentiveness by focusing on the person speaking. Maintain eye contact as much as possible. Nodding your head, mirroring the other person’s facial expressions, making sure your body language shows that you are open to hearing what they have to say.
After you have demonstrated that you are paying attention, it may help to give the other person some affirmations, or encouragement to keep the conversation going. This should be limited on your part.
Thank you for sharing this with me.
Can you tell me more about that?
Know that you’ll have space to talk and be patient. Developing this rapport will also help to set an example for the way you'd like to be treated, for the space you would also like to be afforded when it is your turn to share.
If listening with empathy during challenging conversations sounds trying, the best place to start is with people you trust - your friends, your family. Choose one technique and commit to trying out for a day and see what happens. Do you notice any difference in the way you interact with the people you care about when you put your phone down and maintain eye contact with them when they speak to you?
Instead of approaching challenging conversations or negotiations from a place of defensiveness, fear, or even combat – take the initiative to build a team mentality…. Perhaps seeing a conversation as a shared experience, as opposed to a two-sided event.
Other people are going to continue to make decisions and say things that are very plainly outside of our control. Sure, we can work to influence people and to model better behavior. But when it comes to placing judgment on them, it is much more productive to try to cultivate a little empathy. You, the conversation, and the relationship as a whole, will be better served if you are able to muster up some healthy optimism and proceed with an open mind.