Wired for Empathy
Did you know that although we are wired to experience it, empathy is learned. Says Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why it matters, and How to get it.
BBC.com features an article about Empathy called 'Can You Teach People Empathy?'.
'Radical' listening maybe Krznaric's coin-of-phrase to developing this personality trait, but from a psychotherapeutic perspective we use a less catchy term called 'active' listening. Are they one in the same, probably. It might just depend on your audience.
The Krznaric article quotes Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication that listening "is our ability to be present to what's really going on within - to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing at that very moment" as quoted in the article. (He also has an active blog if you are interested in further reading - click here)
Active listening, from my perspective keeps the focus appropriately on the other. Using all of our faculties to determine, witness and understand not only what the person is saying, but also what the person is feeling.
The listener endeavours to understand truly from the perspective of the other in the context of the present moment as they speak and also in the context of their internal experience as they connect with their thoughts, memories, and the witnessing of their own words.
Embodied Experience - Theirs & (with skill) Yours
Attention is also paid to the embodied experience. This can be expressed as re-ignited embodied experience (a lump in the throat, a feeling of ill-ease) as well as the present sensing the person experiences as they sit with you.
Active listening is verbal and non-verbal; noticing body language, breathing, pauses and presence. A person's presence can communicate many things to the skilled active listener.
My experience as a psychotherapist had taught me that the single most important part of active listening (and that which probably makes a skilled listener most effective) is the ability to leave all assumptions aside, to empty one's mind of all pre-conceiving tendencies, to set aside or turn off your own experience, knowledge or expertise so that the person has every opportunity to transmit without hurdle, fog or assault course the information they wish to express.
Trust is an attribute which comes from the roots of Humanistic & Integrative Psychotherapy. Carl Rodgers who developed Person-Centred Therapy believed that the elements of Unconditional Positive Regard, Congruence and Empathy are essential for an effective therapeutic relationship between the therapist and client.
By placing the individual at the heart of the therapeutic relationship Rogers implied and modelled a trust in the individual's ability to navigate their own process. From this position the therapist has cleared the decks and set aside his agenda, ego and prescriptions and therefore presents himself as willing to wholly meet with the person, how ever they are. That is, to meet with the empathic intention of simply 'being' with the person as they impart what they need to express - in their own time and in their own way. Trusting the person, trusting their process and trusting yourself as a therapist to know when, if any interventions, challenges or probing is appropriate.
Reflecting back or repeating what a person has said is one of the most effective ways to show that you have listened, and understood what you have just heard. Being able to repeat or reflect back in your own words without losing the essence of the person's intent will also go a long way in establishing a truly empathic relationship.
It is not only in the counselling room that empathy has a significant place when it comes to being understood. As Krznaric says in the BBC.com article radical listening can have an extraordinary impact on resolving conflict situations. Rosenberg points out that "in employer-employee disputes, if both sides literally repeat what the other side just said before speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster".
To read the full BBC.com article titled 'Can you teach people empathy?' click here