Empathic listeners are relationship builders. They have a cultivated ability for being present, empathically connected. How do you cultivate empathy however? It starts with set intentions, at least four of them.
For human beings, empathy may be one of the greatest gifts to give or to receive, and perhaps one of our deepest yearnings. It is a form of love, an aspect of love that is expressed through the act of listening to understand from the eyes and heart of another (or self). This is what makes empathy an essential ability to cultivate, and thoughtfully give.
When someone we love disappoints us in some way, this can automatically trigger painful emotions inside.
And when we are in pain, for example, feeling hurt, angry, or disappointed, often one of our greatest yearnings is for empathy, that is, an understanding love from another human being that affirms, in a moment of need, that we are valued. We want to know that our feelings and life matter. And thus a common human undertaking is to look for evidence that another loves us enough to want to understand us from our own perspective, to want us to have what we want (even when not possible), to want to see us happy and fulfilled, personally as well as in our relationship, and so on.
All of these are natural human yearnings or emotion-drives.
It is when we feel pain inside that we feel most unlovable or undeserving of love, in a sense, most vulnerable. In our culture, most of us think of this vulnerability as a sign of weakness, defect, inferiority, and on on. As a result, we “act” as if we don’t care, are tough, can take the pain and swallow it. Swallowed up pain however shows up unannounced in the form of addictions, mental and physical health issues. The body doesn’t lie.
A loved one who has mastered listening for understanding is an empathic listener. They can hear past the words, past their own intimacy fears and challenges, and they can be present as a holding place for another.
The actions they take when they listen, however, are meaningful to the extent they are guided by certain intentions.
Four Intentions of Empathic Listeners
Consciously or subconsciously, an empathic listener has at least four intentions in mind. And intention to:
1. Understand another person from their own perspective, rather than from the listener’s own projection of feelings, beliefs, experiences, assumptions, etc.
2. Refrain from taking another’s words or actions personally to the point of getting triggered and thus activating defensive strategies. This allows their brain to remain in a growth (learning) state of mind and body, rather than a protective (defensive) one, which makes it difficult if not impossible to listen to another’s communications.
3. See another as a separate person, and thus curious to ask questions and learn about them, their views and experiences of life, rather than view the other as an extension of the listener’s wants and needs and thus judge differences as threatening or inferior.
4. Listen objectively, not as an evaluator or critic, rather as one who wisely recognizes the value of relationship building and understands that the strength of a relationships rest on fostering mutual respect and understanding, which is developed and fostered by regular acts that express love, caring, kindness.
In other words, wittingly or unwittingly, empathic listeners overall intend to listen with compassion and thoughtfulness to others.
How important is empathy, to give and to receive?
Think back to persons who have had the most influence in your life. How would you describe the communication between you? Was it meaningful, fulfilling, perhaps inspiring? Did you feel accepted for the unique being you are, warts and graces?
Chances are that those who influenced you most were powerful listeners. You were likely drawn less by their accomplishments and status, and more because of the feelings you felt in their presence, perhaps, valued, seen, understood at levels that touched and stirred these already present yearnings or values inside you. Whether they did so instinctively in rare moments, or through years of consistent practice, they likely made an impact because they gave you the gift of being present and empathically connected to you at some level.
Ultimately, our yearnings for empathy remind us that we need (not just want) our own love and acceptance, something we ideally cultivate in our experiences of connecting to affirming love from another.
It is in the context of relationships that we learn to love others, our self and life; and this is particularly true in the formative years of early childhood. The experience of love cannot be learned on our own, through logic, intellect and books, or through computers and other technological advances.
We are wired for love and relationships. Our deepest yearnings are emotional needs for healthy connections and relationships; and these are just as real as our physical needs for oxygen, food and water.
Expressing our self authentically is important, however, it’s just as important to know how to listen more deeply, with our hearts. It helps us grow our understanding of others as well as our self and life.
And that’s where empathy enters a saving grace in our lives and relationships. It starts with a set of at least four intentions from which specific actions follow. More on seven conscious actions of empathic listeners in Part 2.