One of the most surprising things to me is the fact that we can be connected by technology to nearly everyone in the world and still be alone. Someone commented recently on the decreasing tendency to make eye contact today. We are, it seems,becoming more and more a global village populated with isolated people. Is there anything we can do to address this concern? Yes, and it is one of the most effective communication skills there are.
Think about a time you felt absolutely alone and isolated, even if you were surrounded by other people. Now, think about a time you experienced being totally understood, accepted and appreciated, even if there was only one other person present. In fact, concentrate on the person or persons responsible for the positive experience.
Simply put, did that person who made the experience so positive demonstrate extraordinary interest in you and what was going on your life? We never know what is going on in someone else’s life.
That ability to keep the focus totally on another person is the main characteristic of someone who is adept at what is called empathic listening.
It is both flattering and affirming to be around someone who is able to totally focus on us and what we are saying. Our normal tendencies in these situations are to listen until something triggers a story or memory of ours. We get sidetracked by sharing these stories with the other person in the belief that they will help them somehow.
The degree to which we are effective as an empathic listener is the degree to which we can avoid that behavior. Truly effective empathic listeners steer completely away from their own agenda and keep the conversation totally on the agenda being presented by the other person.
Our natural ability to do this varies from person to person. Most of us can be trained to be empathic listeners. We first have to decide this is something we want to do. We must decide the benefit of being this type of listener is worth the effort it takes to learn and practice the skills involved.
In deciding if this skill is something you want to cultivate, go back to thinking of those persons mentioned earlier, the one who had an example and a story for everything you shared and the one who seemed totally focused on you. Was there enough value in the second person to make you decide to become that type of listener.
Empathic listening is simple, but it is not easy. It sometimes takes every bit of concentration to ignore the stories, illustrations and anecdotes that keep coming to mind when listening to someone else. There is some learning involved and a great deal of trial and error. The benefits can be huge, but you may not see them immediately. Really listening to another person just might enable them to make a discovery or breakthrough in their lives.
The person you are listening to in this way will almost certainly find you a very interesting person. You will also learn a lot by focusing totally on someone else. If these sound like things that you would find interesting, then empathic listening might be a skill you would like to learn or develop further.
-David C. Bloom
CEO of IHS Services, Inc.
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