Welcome back to Fabiah blog! In this part of the EI and Nursing series, we move on to the topic of empathetic listening, a skill with deep connections to Emotional Intelligence (EI). A full treatment of this topic will take two articles. In this one, we go into what sets empathetic listening apart; in the next we’ll talk about barriers to empathetic listening and ways to overcome them.
Empathetic listening can be defined as the skill of listening in order to understand and connect. EI depends on this skill. Think of Tabitha’s first reaction to her patient at the start of this series, which showed us how figuring out what someone is feeling doesn’t happen automatically. It takes putting our EI to work, and it takes a particular kind of listening.
All listening falls into one of two categories: passive or active. Passive listening is how we take in the news or a weather report. We’re just looking for information, and it probably doesn’t take our full attention to gather as much as we want. If we listen to people this way, we won’t be able to understand or connect with them very well. Doing so requires more than merely gathering information, it requires interaction.
Active listening is listening with interaction. This would be someone concentrating on what you’re saying, making eye contact, and nodding for you to continue. Active listening takes us beyond merely gathering information and lays a good foundation for strong understanding and connection. However, it doesn’t necessarily go far enough. Consider someone who listens very closely to you, but only responds with criticism. By the way, the important thing is not that their response is negative; if you were their boss, they might praise instead of criticize. What’s important is that, though they listen very closely and actively, they’re not really interested in you and what you’re saying. Without that interest in you, they can’t have empathy.
You won’t be surprised to find that empathy is what lies at the heart of empathetic listening. It’s right there in the name, because empathetic listening takes aim at the same target: to see things from another person’s perspective, to get into another person’s shoes. To some people this may not seem as important as just getting the information. However, consider how strong our desire is to be understood. It’s the main thing we want from close relationships and those we depend on when we’re vulnerable. When it comes to speaking and being listened to, we are often happy to be disagreed with and told we’re wrong, as long as we have first been understood.
Empathy is so important to us, that when we talk about its benefits, we have to start with the benefit it is all by itself. Empathetic listening simply satisfies a deep human desire to be understood. Many further benefits follow. Empathetic listening creates trust through mutual understanding, improves communication, and facilitates teamwork. As for stress and work satisfaction, it’s clear that each could only be improved by experiencing our workplace as somewhere we felt connected and understood. You may have noticed how closely the benefits of empathetic listening overlap with those of EI. Especially when it comes to the emotions of others, EI cannot be separated from the understanding and connection of empathetic listening.
So, empathetic listening sounds nice. In fact it sounds very nice. Empathetic listening goes beyond passive listening, beyond active listening, into deep understanding and connection with another person. It meets one of our deepest desires, it comes with many benefits, and yet, there’s not as much of it as we would like. What exactly could be standing in the way of empathetic listening?
Next time we’ll look first at barriers to empathetic listening and then strategies that can help. What we’ll find is a serious challenge set before us. We’ll find that empathetic listening, like developing a strong EI and providing excellent care, is not easy, but still very much worth the effort.
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