How to listen empathetically.
(The first article of the four part series)
One of the things that we reflect on as part of our work at Centre of Gravity, (human-centered consulting firm), is what constitutes the idea of listening. After having spent thousands of hours as an organisation listening to people, as well as from personal experiences, we are still struck by the elusiveness of it as well as its infinite possibilities.
Still, when you ask people whether they listen, the answer you get is ‘Yes, most of the time…’ Most of them also feel that they listen better than the other person.
This difference led us to think about listening- why do we feel it is elusive while many don’t? Do people really listen to one another all the time? Is listening something that we are born with or is it a skill that needs to be learned and practiced?
This is a four-part article on our reflections on listening based on our experience as strategists, as researchers, as a parent, as a spouse, as a child.
What is listening?
Let me meander a bit and talk about what historian and author, Noah Yuval Harari, speaks about language in his seminal work, Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind. According to him, language and speech evolved due to the intrinsic nature of human beings wanting to gossip. It was not always about communicating the sighting of a meal or for a coordinated hunt but to gossip about people in the community. Which essentially meant, talking and listening.
As human beings we were incredible listeners. If you imagine us as hunter-gatherers, our survival and the survival of our family/ community depended on how well we listened to the environment; not just with our ears but with our whole body. To listen and feel the wind and be able to predict a storm or just a windy afternoon or whether the sound ahead indicated food or danger. Or listening to the shamans & the elders talk about our myths and stories. My guess is that we didn’t just listen to their words, we were listening to the drama through their body language; listening to the tone, to the pitch, to their eye movements. This was important because we needed to pass these stories and myths on to our kids with the same kind of drama and movement.
Do we listen that deeply now?
Just to help us see the difference, let me ask you this — how was your listening when you were in love? How was it with your newborn child? How is it when you do something that you love or while learning something interesting? And how is it in contrast to the rest of the times, when you are speaking with your spouse, parents, co-workers, boss? Is there a difference?
I remember when my daughter Ahana was born, my listening was very different, discerning between the cries of hunger to that of being sleepy or wanting attention; to listening to her body movements to discern any discomfort, pain, etc. This lasted till she could express herself. And then it was back to a base normal. I feel the difference in my listening while I am in the mountains; listening with my whole body to the trees to know if we are losing our way, to the weather, to the wind to the hundreds of insects and birds, to your climbing partners. And this listening is certainly very different from my normal listening.
Here is a typical listening incident of mine. I remember this incident with my mom. It was a weekday and I had come back from a tour. I went to her room to see how she was doing; she had been sick for a while. When I peeped in, she was sitting in bed and when she saw me, she handed me her phone saying that some app was not working. And I know that my mom is a bit of a tech savvy person, she figures out most of these things herself. Then she asked me about my work, about my colleagues. In my mind I was wondering, why is she asking me this and simultaneously other thoughts of work were also coming up in my mind. As she was speaking, she moved on the bed to make space for me, which I didn’t pick up. Finally, she asked me to lead her to a chair next to the window and stared out. And, I went back to doing my own work.
It was not until recently that I realised how I didn’t listen to her at all. She was desperately trying to reach out and I blew it completely. My mom passed away a few years ago and this incident has stuck with me, more so because I cannot turn back the time and change my response.
Yet, here at CoG we feel that we listen more deeply, given our specialization!
I feel that we really listen only when we are in a heightened emotional state, where we lose our status, control and the feeling of ‘I’. The rest of the times we just hear, do the mandatory acknowledging gestures but never listen deeply or empathetically. This is more often with our close ones.
Therefore, what is listening?
It’s the difference between the listening I had for my mother as compared to that with my newborn daughter.
People use different words like deep listening, active listening, mindful listening, etc., we use empathetic listening. All of it is just this — have I listened to the other person fully? Listened to both the verbal and the non-verbal cues (tone, pitch and body language)? Have I understood what the person is telling me without any kind of prejudice and chatter in my brain? And am I able to playback the conversation in my own words, without changing or corrupting it?
Listening is a very deep, respectful and sensitive act. The reason someone talks to us is because they expect us to understand them and give them a sensitive hearing. If we don’t do that, it is a violation of that sacred trust and a disrespect to the other person; however trivial we feel the conversation may be.
The reason why we don’t listen well (apart from those rare deep listening instances) is due to certain challenges. Some of these challenges we could be aware of but there are many which remain elusive to us, we don’t even know they exist.
The broad areas that pose challenges to listening are distractions, selective listening which include aspects of listening with an agenda, biases and finally overlooking the non-verbal cues or not listening to the body language. Para linguistics and mannerisms of the speaker are an important part of this area.
In the next three articles of the series, we’ll go over each of these challenges in detail to see if there are certain principles/ practices that we can infer from the times we listened deeply and use them to overcome these challenges. Stay with us on this journey to explore and understand empathetic listening.