Empathic Listening

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relationshipCommunicationEmpathic listening refers to being willing to listen solely to understand what your partner means and feels. You do not judge, rebut, advice, or contradict. Instead, you silence your critical inner voice and focus entirely on what your partner is trying to tell you. You put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and, by doing so, achieve a high degree of intimacy.

Although empathic listening sounds like a wonderful way to interact with your partner, self-interest and self-protective mechanisms commonly get in the way. We tend to listen for what is of interest to us, what enhances us, or what presents as an opening to jump back into the conversation. Although this is a natural way to interact, it is a barrier to intimacy. It is impossible to be helpful unless you truly understand what your partner has meant.

To begin empathic listening, first make sure you and your partner both have the time and energy to participate in such a focused activity. Otherwise, the technique will not be effective if one or both of you is thinking about something else. Be sure you are sitting somewhere free of distractions. If a ticking clock, crying baby, or loud television is going to make it difficult to concentrate, move your conversation to another area. A large part of empathic listening is respect for one another’s words, time, and effort to communicate.

Once you are in a distraction-free area, begin the communication by having your partner simply and clearly express what he or she would like to say to you. Listen carefully without any desire to act in any way on the words. Simply hear what your partner is saying. Once you have listened, repeat the information you were just given. Have your partner verify that you heard correctly and clarify anything that was not heard exactly right. Then invite your partner to continue.

Once you have heard all that your partner has to say and he or she has clarified anything you misunderstood, take the time to respond thoughtfully if you wish. Once your partner has demonstrated understanding of your words, take the time to open the conversation to discussion of any problems that came up during the talk.

Reflect upon the following questions after this experience:

  • How did the level of confusion, tension, or animosity compare to when you usually discuss difficult issues?
  • Was it difficult for either of you to stick to the format?
  • Did you argue about the rules?
  • How did it feel to listen empathically to your partner?
  • How did if feel to be heard in an empathic way?

By taking the time to really hear what you are saying to each other, your communication within the relationship can become more respectful, effective, and caring.

(Source: Passage to Intimacy by Lori H. Gordon, Ph.D)

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