My youngest daughter is preparing for the elementary school’s science fair later this month. What she decided to do was related to the fried chicken we ate for dinner. She placed a chicken bone in a cup and poured in 100% pure white vinegar to the cup’s rim. The chicken bone is soaking for several weeks on the kitchen table to test her hypothesis of “Will the chicken bone become rubbery?” She checks the cup daily for changes.
You can smell the vinegar as one enters the kitchen. The vinegar/chicken bone aroma has spread to the family, living, and dining rooms in the house. It’s our special “after the holidays” home scent.
The aroma got me thinking about doing my own experiment this month. No, not rocket science or exploding soda liter bottles, although I enjoy viewing those experiments on YouTube. My experiment idea originated when I came across these words in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Readers know I mention this book often, as it has some good ideas to live better.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.” Stephen R. Covey
I found these sentences profound. The statements describe me. This is what I do in conversations.
And it is so wrong, right?
I’m a talker. I prefer talking. I always have. And when I noticed these sentences in the book, I re-read and meditated on the words. I felt like they were calling me out. Hey you, person who loves to talk, who tends to monopolize conversations by speaking, stop. Be quiet and listen to the other person.
So this is my experiment. During conversations, I am focusing on my intention – intent to listen to understand and not the intent to reply.
Can a Non-Stop Talker’s Good Intention be Good Enough to Learn Empathic Listening?
My Predictions: I Will Try …
I think I’ll make many mistakes. I’ll have good intentions, be sort of focused before the interaction but then during a conversation, I’ll forget my plan and fall back into old habits of speaking. My attention span can be short when it comes to listening. I feel like I’ll be failing a new year’s resolution within 20 minutes of every conversation I’ll have.
I may retreat to making excuses. There are times when I’m not feeling well and irritable. I doubt I’ll be on my best behavior then. What if the person’s talking boring drivel? What if the conversation’s topic is hard to comprehend? Then there are many other things to think about – my mind races when I’m sitting still.
Okay, so I’m committed to trying.
What is Empathic Listening?
Empathic listening is the most important principle in good interpersonal communication. Its significance does not mean it’s often done well. It’s rarely modeled by others except counselors and therapists, and it’s not a technique or a ten-step formula. Most of us have not taken empathic listening skill classes in high school or in college.
Good empathic listening starts with your intention of the conversation. You may make the mistake about wanting to be understood first instead of trying to understand the other person first, to focus on what’s going on inside another human being. You are listening with your heart. Your desire is to understand fully what the person is communicating. You get to know their perspective so well that you could share their thoughts and feelings correctly. It’s getting inside a person’s frame of reference, so you understand how they feel.
“You rephrase the content and reflect the feeling.” Stephen R. Covey
Covey summarizes that you demonstrate listening with the intent to understand by responding this way during the conversation: You rephrase the content of what the speaker is saying in your own words and reflect the feeling of the speaker.
So how did I do? I’m embarrassed to share. The more I read and study empathic listening, the more I see how I fall short, in the past and in the now. These sentences are difficult to write because it’s sharing the ugly side of growing: falling down numerous times.
When you prefer talking as I do, it’s hard to shut up. When I approach a conversation, I think about what I’m going to say, and not what I need to do to listen.
Drinks and Conversation at Restaurant with Friends
I was looking forward to visiting with three friends over drinks at a local restaurant. I was the first one there, which was great, as it gave me a chance to remind myself, I’m going to listen with the intent to understand. I repeated the mantra to myself several times, as no one arrived for a while.
How did the evening go? In the beginning, I kept the mantra on my mind. When someone spoke, I tried to listen to her words, and not what I was going to say next. It doesn’t come naturally, so I was using energy to perform the new habit. I internally was chanting: it’s about her, her, her, and not about me, me, me. I felt like I was listening to take a test, and the test was to periodically mirror what she said. I observed her body language, and tried to understand what she was feeling.
But I didn’t anticipate how much listening is affected by others’ directing the conversation. Our dialogue was not two-way conversations – ah, the distractions of group dynamics. As I bowed to peer pressure, I gave up trying to rephrase what she said.
For example, Sarah (all names are pseudonyms) talked about her son’s inability to focus on doing homework afterschool, and after two hours, he still hadn’t finished the assignment. He kept getting up from his chair to do something else instead of completing the easy worksheet. No one acknowledged what she said, or mirrored her feelings of exasperation. As soon as there was a break in conversation, Michelle shared that her daughter was choosing her school electives for next year.
It was multiple one-way conversations, like each person had a megaphone, and was primarily speaking or quiet, but not listening. For the most part, we didn’t talk over one another. But we (including me) never set our megaphone down to listen to what someone was saying, to truly understand and rephrase their thoughts.
How painful we as human beings struggle to listen to one another … this experience has raised my awareness to a higher level. I paid attention to our dialogue and it seemed no one was listening emphatically to each other. My listening muscles didn’t possess the stamina my talking muscles do. My talking won out.
It was tougher to try empathic listening with a family member, and my teenage daughter no less.
Conversation with My Teenage Daughter
When my teenage daughter was upset about the changes the director made in the middle school play she has multiple roles in, resulting in less speaking time and less stage time, she was upset. I observed several points when I tried to be an empathic listener.
I gave a “silver lining” response. “Well, at least you get to sing the Broadway version song you prefer.” I was not showing acceptance of what she was saying, instead was giving my opinion, which I note she did not ask for during our conversation.
My mind was puzzled. I was distracted from my mental task list humming of what else I should be doing right now. I also found myself fixated what to do next in the process of empathic listening. I was self-conscious, and not present with her.
It was hard to maintain the mindset of listening with the intent to understand.
I didn’t paraphrase of what she said – cannot explain why other than I’m a newbie — but I did try to say something that reflected her feelings. I had misdiagnosed her feelings, she corrected me, and actually that was okay.
Conclusion: Keep Trying and Return to Studying
I thought I would develop a basic level of competence in a month, but this experiment revealed I’m in the kindergarten level of empathic listening. I’ve only begun. And such is life, isn’t it? We don’t know what we don’t know until we start to do. It’s only when we’re applying the principle that we become aware of our ignorance.
A few points to make: I’m continuing to listen to the other person first in almost every conversation. I figure this will take a year before it comes more naturally. I know I have the talking part of two-way conversation down pat. Ha! Ha! I will become a more competent listener – but only if I practice daily. I will continue to strengthen my listening muscles.
I’m also studying the finer points of empathic listening. What struck me is in past conversations, after a frustrating exchange with my daughter – I can’t claim it as a conversation because it was not — I had felt indignation afterwards. She wasn’t listening to me. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t understand her. Why won’t she listen to me? She’s not trying to understand me.” But after reflecting, I’m becoming aware the opposite was true … that it was me who did not understand her.
It seems that to understand another person, you need to listen to her, first.
If you were going to dedicate a month to changing a habit, what would it be?