The Art of Listening: Empathy in Quiet Action

Being a human on earth these days isn’t always sunshine and bubbles. Let’s talk real-life for a minute. People are being killed on the streets and in schools. People are saying hurtful things to each other on the internet and in person. In our current cultural situation, our first reaction is to defend ourselves and those we love. But when everyone is on the defense, the cycle of pain continues.

I’m going to let you in on a secret, though. We have the power to stop hurting each other. If we take the time to listen, we can turn this all around. Listening opens the door for us to understand people and develop empathy for their situation. And empathy is the key to ending this cycle of pain.

Photo by Marisa Pfenning
Photo by Marisa Pfenning

Picture this. Someone is sitting next to you on the bus with a #MAGA shirt on. You didn’t vote that way, so your first reaction is anger. You think about all the negative things that have happened since the election and you associate all of those things with this person. But you look at their face and you realize they’re crying. So you ask “Hey, are you okay?”, and they respond “I just lost my job. It’s been a really tough week. I don’t know what to do next. I’m scared.”

This person just opened up to you in a real way and expressed fear about the loss of their basic human needs. You would never see that side of their story without asking them a question and listening to their response. Now you can empathize with their situation because you see they share the same basic human needs, like purpose, shelter, food, and water.

One more quick note on empathy. Some people are afraid to listen to other people’s opinions because they think they have to agree with them. The beauty of empathy is that you are never required to agree. The purpose of empathizing with someone is to understand their situation. You may completely disagree with them, but at least you understand how they got to that place. You may have reached a similar place in your life, and you know what that’s like.

Photo by Gaby Esensten
Photo by Gaby Esensten

Now that we’ve talked about the importance of listening to gain empathy and solve the world’s problems, let’s dig into the art of listening. Contrary to common practice, listening isn’t just a time for you to figure out what you’re going to say next. Instead, pause your thoughts, and really listen to the person in front of you. Look them in the eye. Hear the words they are saying, and maybe even the words they aren’t saying. Both can be incredibly powerful.

Judi Brownell from Cornell University developed a model for how to listen effectively. It’s called HURIER and it stands for Hearing, Understanding, Remembering, Interpreting, Evaluating, and Responding. Let’s take a look at how she breaks it down.

  • Hearing. This means pausing your mind and actually listening to the words that are being said. This is also commonly referred to as active listening. It can include non-verbal communication like tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. If you have trouble pausing your mind, meditation can be a helpful skill to practice.
  • Understanding. This is where empathy comes in. You may need to ask questions to help build your understanding of the situation. Here are a few helpful ones to try: “Why do you think that happened?”, “Why did you decide to go in that direction?”, “How were you feeling in that moment?”
  • Remembering. This is essential when it comes to trust building, and this part should come easy when you practice active listening. Start taking mental notes of the key points they are making, but avoid evaluations. This will come later. Remember what this person said so they can trust that you listened to them.
  • Interpreting. This is about recognizing the context where and when the message was delivered. Are you at work, or at the bar on the weekend? Also, be aware of your preconceptions or biases because those will play a part here. Try to put those aside and focus on the basic human needs this person is expressing.
  • Evaluating. Let’s remember that this is an evaluation and not a judgement. An evaluation is an objective review of what you’re hearing, while a judgement includes your subjective opinion. Try to evaluate what the person is saying without adding your opinion. It’s important to ask if the person wants your opinion before offering it, unsolicited.
  • Responding. Last but not least: your response. Take a moment to breathe, then put your thoughts together about what the person just said. Your first response should start with checking for understanding. An easy way to do this is by saying “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I want to make sure I’m understanding you. What I’m hearing you say is…”. When you’re done reiterating what you heard, stop talking. Let the person you’re talking to respond and give you confirmation or correct you. This is critical.

So, the next time you feel yourself reacting to someone without taking the time to understand them, take a step back and just listen. Let’s turn this around together.

Photo by Aline Kras
Photo by Aline Kras

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