Research Paper By Ann Parnes
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Seek first to understand, then you will be understood when you speak. Steven Covey
The essence of good listening is empathy. Empathy is the act of understanding and sharing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another person. While it may not always be easy to put ourselves in the shoes of our partner, empathy is a vital part of any good romantic relationship.
Research shows that displaying empathy with romantic partners can lead to greater connectedness and more fulfilling relationships. In a study published in the “Journal of Family Psychology” in 2012, researchers found that partners’ relationship satisfaction increased when they perceived that their partner was making an effort to read what they were thinking and feeling, regardless of the level of accuracy. On the flip side, a lack of empathy can make a relationship feel like it lacks intimacy and connection, as well as increase the amount of conflict and negativity between partners.
Empathy is a crucial part of romantic relationships because we want our spouses or partners to not only listen to what we are saying on the surface, but also to understand our unspoken needs, desires and fears. Empathic listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give our partner because it shows that we respect, value and truly care about them. In turn, they will respond by listening to us, thereby opening communication and encouraging kindness.
While being empathic can be easy and natural in the beginning, couples often fall short over time. Take for example the progression of the following, not atypical, relationship. Boy meets girl, and instantly there is mutual interest and attraction. The two begin to spend time together and look forward to their next date. They enjoy getting to know each other and discovering the other’s likes/dislikes, opinions, history, hopes and dreams. They make efforts to impress the other with thoughtful gifts, romantic notes, flowers, music, etc. When one partner is upset, the other carefully listens and tries to connect with him/her by trying to feel what the other is going through, thereby creating trust and intimacy.
Fast forward 10 years –the couple is married, and has young, demanding children. There are major stressors such as sleepless nights, finances, careers, cooking, cleaning and everything else that goes with running a household. There’s a lot to do and typically only 2 people to do it. When one partner doesn’t do something, there is more for the other to handle, making it easy for partners to feel they are on opposite teams and creating a dynamic of resentment rather than compassion. In many cases, the couple has neither the time, desire nor the energy to truly listen to each other. They become preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings. When one is talking, the other gets distracted and does not really pay attention closely to what the other person is saying. They may be distracted by what’s going on around them with the kids, get caught up in unrelated thoughts, or become focused on what to say to their spouse in response. Over time, this type of behavior can cause serious harm to the marriage –depleting the intimacy and connection the couple once shared.
It is easy to see how life can get in the way and how people can get caught up in their own stories –their disappointments, their desires, their hardships. It is possible to repair the bond between partners, but doing so will require them to suspend their preoccupation with themselves and enter into the experience of the other person. While there are many benefits to understanding ourselves and being in touch with our emotions, if we are to have successful romantic relationships, the other perspective we need to understand is the one of the person we are in the relationship with.
While as coaches we understand the importance of empathic (or active listening), too many couples lose sight of just how important this skill is to the health of their marriage or relationship. The International Coach Federation tells us:
A coach can learn the most about their coachee by deep listening with no judgment and attachment. How deeply a coach listens to the coachee critically affects the quality and results of coaching in creating the coachee’s self-awareness and learning. Trust and intimacy between coach and coachee are built on the coach’s active listening skills. A coach who is skillful listener will be able to ask powerful questions and provide depth and valuable clarifying that reflect coachee perception and emotion, which impact on coachee self discovery and moving forward.
A couple that is taught to engage in this type of empathic listening that we as coaches engage in, can derive many similar benefits in a romantic relationship. Empathic listening is a way of listening and responding to another that allows couples to feel understood, appreciated and connected to each other. Among it’s benefits, empathic listening builds trust and respect, enables the one in need to release his/her emotions, reduces tensions, encourages the surfacing of information, and creates a safe environment for sharing and problem solving.
Before addressing the ways in which to develop empathic listening skills, it is important to recognize the types of statements or questions that can get in the way of empathic listening. While it may feel more natural and comfortable to engage in the following, the following behaviors and statements are counter to empathic listening:
“I think you should … “
“If I were you, I’d … “
“There’s a great book about … “
Explaining It Away
“I would have called but … “
“That only happened because you … “
“But I didn’t mean to … “
“That’s not how it happened … “
“But you’re the one who … “
“Wait! I never said that!”
“It wasn’t your fault … “
“You did the best you could … “
“It could’ve been a lot worse … “
- Turning the attention to yourself
“That reminds me of the time … “
“I know how you feel. That happened to me too when I … “
Shutting Down Feelings
“Cheer up. Don’t be so mad.”
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal.”
Sympathizing / Commiserating
“Oh you poor thing … “
“How can people do that?”
“Why did you say that?”
“How come you did that?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
Evaluating / Teaching
“You’re just too unrealistic.”
“The trouble with them is … “
“Don’t you think you shouldn’t have…?”
“I only said that because…”
“How was I supposed to know?”
Empathic listening is about uncovering and experiencing for yourself what your partner is experiencing. You don’t have to agree; just step into their shoes to see the world from their perspective. While it isn’t always easy to do so, with some practice, couples can build empathy in their relationship by doing the following:
1) Give the person your full attention. Find a time when you can give your undivided attention to your partner–if you are doing something else, then your attention is not on listening to understand. This is not a time to multitask, so find a time and place where to be able to listen completely. Show your partner that you are listening by nodding and looking into your partner’s eyes.
2) Listen with your whole body with the purpose of feeling your way into your partner’s perspective. This type of listening helps us hear not only the literal words, but also the emotion and subtleties behind them. Try to figure out why your partner is expressing themselves in the way that they are. Are they angry, worried, lonely? What would you be feeling to express yourself in the same manner? Use your knowledge of your partner’s history, and emotional make up to try and understand the meaning that may be hidden in what they are saying. Also, look for clues in their body language and expressions.
3) Listen with the right attitude and purpose. Your purpose here is to listen to what your partner is saying and understand not only what is being said, but also what is going on behind the words. Oftentimes people have a hard time expressing themselves so it may take some practice to ascertain the point they are trying to make. Empathic listening requires acceptance of our partner, his attitude and his perspective. The right attitude is open, unguarded and generous, not defensive. When the topic is a hot button issue, acknowledge to yourself that you may have strong feelings on the topic as well, but be willing to put those feelings on hold. Bringing awareness to one’s own strong feelings can help you make a more deliberate effort in putting aside emotions that get in the way of active listening.
4) Don’t talk while the other person is talking. Your partner may stumble awkwardly through the conversation. It may not be easy for him to communicate fully what he would like to, especially if this type of communication is new to him. While it may be tempting to interject, be patient and give him space and time to speak freely. When there are moments of silence, resist the temptation to talk; instead, allow your partner to use this space to gather his thoughts.
5) Ask questions from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. Judgment is an empathy killer. If you feel yourself beginning to judge or become critical about how your partner is feeling, stop yourself. While it may be tough to take yourself out of the equation, it is important to figure out the point they are trying to make and to see it from their perspective. Only speak to ask questions that will clarify what you are hearing so that you can better understand them. Asking open-ended questions encourages a greater sharing of information and a deeper exploration of one’s emotions.
6) Acknowledge and validate your partner’s emotions. Validation does not mean you agree or feel the same way. When your partner shows a feeling, empathy involves acknowledging his or her feeling and saying that it makes sense that he or she may be feeling that way. This is important because it shows them that you are listening and that you really get what they are saying.
7) Do not move too quickly to try and problem-solve. Oftentimes, a partner just wants empathy – to be heard, seen, and understood – and problem-solving can feel invalidating and unloving. Before jumping in with suggestions, ask whether or not your partner wants help solving the problem. Oftentimes, the goal is not problem solving, it’s simply understanding and connection.
8) Respect your partner’s space. If your partner doesn’t want to talk anymore, give the conversation a break. Empathic listening encourages people to talk freely and share their feelings, however, if your partner doesn’t feel that he can continue the conversation, respect his wishes.
9) Repeat back your understanding of what they have said. Paraphrase what you are hearing with the attitude that you recognize that you may not be correctly grasping your partner’s meaning though you would like to. This will allow your partner to either confirm that you have heard correctly what he is trying to say or will give him the opportunity to clarify It will also allow your partner to hear himself through your perspective.
10) Switch roles. Once the first partner has completed his sharing and the other partner has reflected back his understanding, it is time to switch roles if the other partner would like to speak. The other partner will now hopefully extend the same gift of empathic listening until have been heard and understood.
If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you`ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Atticus Finch -To Kill A Mockingbird