Lend an Empathetic Ear

Richard Salem writes:

"Empathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality of another person in order to better understand that person's emotions or feelings. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know, "I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you." The listener unmistakably conveys this message through words and non-verbal behaviors, including body language. In so doing, the listener encourages the speaker to fully express herself or himself free of interruption, criticism or being told what to do. It is neither advisable nor necessary for a mediator to agree with the speaker, even when asked to do so. It is usually sufficient to let the speaker know, "I understand you and I am interested in being a resource to help you resolve this problem."

As Tony Alessandra notes:

"William Ury, in his book, GETTING PAST NO, makes the point that every human being has a deep need for his or her feelings to be recognized. Knowing this can help tremendously in a difficult negotiation by creating a climate for agreement.

Ury counsels that it's important to acknowledge both the factual point, and the feelings of the other person. He uses the example of an employee approaching a boss. The employee says: "I just found out Dale makes two thousands dollars more a year than I do for the same job." Trying to explain why Dale makes more money, even if the reason is a good one, only makes the employee angrier. Instead, you must acknowledge the fact and the feelings first: "You think we're taking advantage of you and you're angry. I can understand that. I'd probably feel the same way."

That isn't what an angry person expects. By acknowledging the employee's feelings, you've helped him calm down. His next statement might be: "Well, why shouldn't I make as much as Dale does?" That shows he's ready to hear your explanation."

Empathy begins with listening. Richard Salem continues:

"Among its benefits, empathic listening

1. builds trust and respect,
2. enables the disputants to release their emotions,
3. reduces tensions,
4. encourages the surfacing of information, and
5. creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving...

The power of empathic listening in volatile settings is reflected in Madelyn Burley-Allen's description of the skilled listener. "When you listen well," Burley-Allen says, "you:

1. acknowledge the speaker,
2. increase the speaker's self-esteem and confidence,
3. tell the speaker, "You are important" and "I am not judging you,"
4. gain the speaker's cooperation,
5. reduce stress and tension,
6. build teamwork,
7. gain trust,
8. elicit openness,
9. gain a sharing of ideas and thoughts, and
10.obtain more valid information about the speakers and the subject.

To obtain these results, Burly-Allen says, a skilled listener:

1. "takes information from others while remaining non-judgmental and empathic,
2. acknowledges the speaker in a way that invites the communication to continue, and
3. provides a limited but encouraging response, carrying the speaker's idea one step forward."

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