Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Empathic Listening

It was over 25 years ago and I was a new mother. I'd been given all kinds of misinformation about nursing my baby - from all kinds of sources - and I was really, really sore as a result. At my husband's suggestion, I called a local La Leche League Canada leader. The lady on the other end of the phone listened to my predicament for a good five minutes without saying a word. And I'll never forget what the first word out of her mouth was (said with the kind of feeling that said "I've experienced this and I KNOW it's not fun in the least..."). The word was, "OUCH!"

The empathy in the tone of that one word was exactly what I needed. She went on to give me basic information that fixed the problem in minutes and allowed me to heal within a week.

What I liked most about our conversation was that she didn't come off all superior, she didn't preach at me, she didn't overreact, she didn't jump down my throat, and she didn't try to "convert" me. She just listened and she knew how to show that she was there to help - without making me feel like I was beholden to her. And oh yes, she left the choice up to me without insisting or belittling me, or saying that she was going to check up on me later.

All of those things that she didn't do? I've had them done to me.

Yeah, and by people who should probably know better. Or who have forgotten that people are people, not numbers or statistics.

Photo "Psychiatrist Examining A Male
by Ambro at

Empathy, as described by Carl Rogers (the father of modern psychotherapy), looks more like a quest to understand what it is like to BE the other person rather than an effort to appear knowledgeable about the problem. In this quest, (these are his own words, below):

... the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. 

I feel blessed to have had the privilege of seeing a therapist who actually could sense what it was like to be me, to feel my feelings as if they were his own. It was a remarkably freeing experience, one I've never forgotten, and one I want to emulate if I ever get to be a counselor. There was no judgment, no "you should...." (which usually means "You should be more like me...") ... and I must say that being listened to for what felt like the first time in my life was a remarkable step toward wholeness. It gave me permission to find out who I really was, to get to know me, and to learn to like me.

That was huge. And I really hope that someday I can provide that atmosphere of trust for someone else who needs to follow that same path to self-discovery.

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