the politics of anger

In difficult times often we really want someone to ‘just be there for us’ and to ‘show compassion and understanding for what we are dealing with’ as opposed to offering pragmatic solutions or taking initiative to ‘fix it.’ In short people very often simply want empathy and they can feel worse, alone, or misunderstood if we go into problem solving mode.


What we can do to be an empathetic listener

1.) Clear your mind and focus all you attention on your partner.

2.) Pay attention to your partner’s non- verbal language and keep eye contact to the degree that makes the speaker feel comfortable.
■ Eye contact ensures that we stay present with the conversation and there is a plethora of information that is transmitted while looking into someone’s eyes. The emotional experience of the speaker is far easier to deduce when we are focusing on their body language.

Focusing on non-verbals dramatically reduces misunderstanding and helps the listener to avoid projecting their own emotional experience onto the speaker’s story. Quite simply we can see how they feel.

3.) When we are listening to our partner’s story, it helps to attend to how they felt at the time and how they feel right now as they are retelling the story.
■ Our partner wants our support and needs us to be emotionally vulnerable, for them to share their emotional experience. It is rarely important that we understand the specifics of the plot (though we can certainly pay some attention to the details as well.) We are ‘helping’ by listening, bearing witness to their emotional pain.

4.) Acknowledge, accept, and validate our partners unique emotional experience.
■ The way that they feel, is the way that they feel… it is never our job to try and change their emotional experience. People have a right to their subjective emotions and they do not necessarily choose their emotional reactions. We can always validate their feelings by allowing them to experience and express their opinions. Accept that this is how they feel and allow them to feel that way.

5.) Display understanding by gently and unassumingly reflecting back the emotions that our partner has expressed.
■ For example, if our partner says, “I had the worst day. I arrived at our meeting thinking that today we were going to be talking about one thing and they were talking about something else totally unrelated… so when it was my time to talk I sounded like an idiot and my boss was clearly pissed.” A reflection could be as simple as, “sorry honey that sounds really disappointing.” This acknowledges their feeling about the experience, rather then judge the experience itself. The goal of reflecting back what we have heard is to quickly show that we understand without distracting the speaker from their narrative.

6.) Be compassionate.
■ Often time the best thing to do is to offer our partner a hug. We can feel their pain, while holding a firm understanding that this pain is not our pain. Non-verbal actions which display the strength and security of the relationship are the most helpful. These nonverbal expressions are unique and depend on the tactile needs of our partner – some will like to be hugged, others will like a soft smile, and other will want us to hold their hand etc.

7.) Finally ask what
■ Our partner may want our help, our opinion, our time, a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen. To be sure we are giving them what they need, it is always best to ask as opposed to assuming.