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A Therapist Shares Four Tips for Listening With Empathy

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Have you ever gone through a painful breakup and felt over-supported by too many people too close to you? You’re at the toughest part, your wounds are fresh, and you’re feeling low as ever. The people who care about you hate to see you struggle, and they want to help. But words of wisdom feel hollow, cliché or patronizing. You’re not ready to “stay positive!” or wrap up the situation with a nice bow. What you need is someone to just meet you where you are and listen. To let you experience the moment for what it is.

Or maybe, you’ve been on the other side and found your partner telling you that you’re never really listening to what they are trying to say. While your ears are open and you understand the words that were spoken, you still stand there without the right words and struggle to console them. This can feel defeating, especially when you just want to help fix the problem.

Being a good listener is hard, and there’s no exact science to the ability to connect with another person. As an advisor for Listeners On Call, I helped develop a few simple techniques that will take your natural listening abilities and elevate them to deepen your connections and conversations. Through the B.O.N.D. model, we’ve cultivated a practice we call Connected Listening that will help you form powerful connections with those around you.

Connected Listening builds on the shared experience between both you and the other person to create a literal and figurative bond. As a listener, your role in creating this connection is very clear — we’ve simplified it into four elements.

B — Be Present

This may seem obvious, but sometimes we all need a reminder: Give your absolute attention to the other person. Put away all distractions during that moment, whether it’s your phone, a work email, the news ticker in the background, or chores around the house. Without saying a word, this tells the other person that you’re ready and that you’re there for them.

O — Open Your Heart

Be authentic with your empathy. There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy that’s important to note. Sympathy tends to distance us from another and feel like pitty, while empathy, can connect us through shared experience of emotions. It’s not taking on the burden, it’s about joining the other in it.

Don’t be afraid to genuinely show your vulnerability and compassion. Lots of people hold to the misguided philosophy that to be strong you must remain stoic and composed. But that’s simply not true. If the goal is to feel more ease and connection, appearing uninterested or being quick to skim past the emotions sends a message that the other’s feelings don’t matter or are not welcomed, even if you don’t mean to.

Authenticity requires a lot of strength to open your heart to the people you love because as humans, we are wired to protect ourselves when we don’t feel safe. Emotional or physical, this primal reaction gets in our way when we’re not actively aware of what judgements, past experiences and biases we have built up in our lifetime.

The best way to be open with others is to first be open with ourselves. Practice opening your heart to those you trust, let them know what you need is just a listening ear and see for yourself just how good it feels.

N — Notice What They Mean

When someone shares what’s troubling them or what’s on their mind, listening fully allows you to hear the message beneath the words. We’re all familiar with the adage “read between the lines,” and that’s essentially what we’re getting at here. Your companion, close friend, son or daughter, may say things that actually mean something else.

The key to effective listening is to tap into this discernment, read their body language or tone of voice, and understand the true meaning of their words; and make sure to ask for clarity to guard against forming a belief that isn’t what the other intended. While this can be tricky, like all skills, the more you practice the better you will become and the easier it gets.

D — Deliver Assurance

Be supportive of their perspective. If they are comfortable with sharing their pain and having hard conversations, make it clear that they made the right decision in trusting you by being fully present Your eye contact and attention confidently assure them that opening up with you is a good decision. Your willingness to listen sends the message that they have a genuine advocate sitting across the table or on the end of the line from them. Nothing is more reassuring to any human being than the fact that, no matter where they are in life, they are not alone.

Practicing these skills is a firm foundation for building a genuine connection with others that will prove useful in all aspects of your life. Whether it’s with parents, coworkers, spouses, friends or children, each of these steps I’ve outlined are incredibly effective. I know this because I’ve spent the past 15 years as an expert listener.

While I give my best attempt to remember them in my personal life, my emotions sometimes get the best of me in the moment and I need a reminder that even if I don’t agree, I can listen because the person on the other end matters to me.  Listening doesn’t require us to know the answer, it just requires us to practice allowing the other to be who they are, feel what they feel and that’s it.

To be clear, with the B.O.N.D. model, the goal is to deepen your relationships by allowing the other to just be where they are without having to fix it. Good listening doesn’t make difficulty go away, and it is the best and most effective way to know what to do next. Everyone deserves to be heard, and I hope that through this method you find that your relationships strengthen just by tuning into your natural ability to provide the support, empathy and perspective that everyone needs in life.

Header image via Christina @ on Unsplash

Originally published: October 12, 2020
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