Excerpt From Relationships That Work: The Power Of Conscious Living
– By David B. Wolf
Note that showing understanding is not just a matter of finding words to mechanically describe the person’s emotion and content. It also includes matching the person’s energy. When a friend is feeling sad and down, a reflective statement from my side in an excited voice won’t yield understanding, although what I said was accurate. Empathy is more likely to be conveyed if our words are accompanied by an energy that matches the feeling of the situation. A discordant mentality, even if accompanied by correct reflective statements, can be a roadblock to effective communication. In this regard it is important to recognize that reflective listening is a tool that conveys the essence of empathy. Just because I make an accurate reflective statement does not necessarily mean that I am being empathetic. Conversely, it is possible to convey empathy while using a mode of communication that is on the “potential roadblock” list, although here we are focusing on techniques such as mirroring and effective attending to communicate empathy.
To experience the benefit of empathic dialogue, engage in it with some of the people in your life. Fully enter the world of the other person for at least fifteen minutes, using empathic listening to display understanding. Maintain comfortable eye contact and open-body position during the dialogue. Avoid roadblocks to communication. Simply be a mirror for the other person and notice your experience in attentively reflecting emotion and content. You can also switch roles, having the other person enter your world and mirror for you. To gain a real feel for the effect of empathic dialogue, the speaker should preferably talk about some issue that has an emotional charge for him or her. If you would like to increase the challenge, speak about an issue with emotional substance that is a source of tension between you and the other person. This process requires an ability to listen, and a commitment to understand.
By practicing dialogue in this format our communication becomes dialogical in spirit, even if we don’t adhere to a framework of structured dialogue. In genuine dialogue I allow others to complete their communication, accepting their experience as real and valid for them. In listening I am not focusing on my next point. A dialogue is not a debate. We are actually listening to each other, not merely taking turns in not listening. Especially when discussing highly charged subjects, or when it is apparent that communication has broken down, utilizing structure for empathic conversation may be particularly valuable. Apply this in your
life and notice a decrease in reactivity, increased emotional safety and deeper connection.
Creating sacred space between us entails commitment to genuine dialogue. Dialogue means that I listen with a view to understand, rather than to counter or defeat. In a consciousness of dialogue, my intention in expression and hearing is not to manipulate, invalidate or prove that I am right. With true dialogue we create a sanctified environment, unadulterated by barriers to healthy communication. It is an enlightening experience. Educator Robert Hutchins comments, “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue, and a dialogue assumes different points of view.”Approaching relationships with an attitude of discovery and deep listening, means that diverse viewpoints enrich relations, rather than divide them.
To effectively live the principles and communication strategies described here requires that our consciousness rests in the mode of sattva—being able to observe while suspending judgment, and being compassionate toward another being. Such compassion is the essence of empathy, and a fundamental quality of a spiritual life. There is a Vedic aphorism, atmavat sarva-bhutesu, which describes the essence of spiritual compassion as “feeling the happiness and distress of others as one’s own.”
Empathy connects us with others, emerges from and is cultivated through self-realization. Renowned management consultants Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel write: “It is widely accepted that self-awareness and the ability to regulate your own emotions are fundamental prerequisites to the practice of empathy…If you can’t tune into your own emotions, it’s going to be a stretch trying to discern those of others. And if you are overcome by your own feelings, you’ll never have the mental bandwidth to listen properly.” Empathy requires a genuine interest in others, and a sincere desire to expand our perspectives and learning.