Thursday, February 25, 2010

Empathic Communication

What is Empathic Communication? How can one apply it in real world situations? What does it have to do with linguistics, verbal communication, and empathic listening? Are there obstacles to process of Empathic Communication?

Lets look at this in some depth, so we can attempt to answer all of these questions.

Empathic Communication

Empathy, as defined by one websites glossary is: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this. So Empathic Communication is the ability to utilize empathy as you communicate with others.

In saying this though, there are some obstacles which tend to get in the way of this process, even beyond things like perceptions tinted by prejudice, judgment, and preconceptions.

10 Obstacles to Empathic Communication
Some common forms of communication that block empathy and take the focus away from the speaker

1. Giving Advice / Fixing: Tell the other person what you think they should do.
“I think you should leave your boyfriend and find somebody else to be with.”
2. Analyzing: Interpreting or evaluating a person’s behavior
“I think you are taking this out on your ex-wife when you are actually frustrated about your divorce.”
3. Storytelling: Moving the focus away from the other and back to your own experience.
“I know just how you feel. This reminds me of a time that I…”
4. Sympathy: Either feeling sorry for other, or sharing my own feelings about what they said.
“Oh, you poor thing… I feel so sad for you.”
5. Reassuring / Consoling: Trying to make the person “feel better” by telling them things will improve.
“You might be upset now, but I’m sure you will feel better soon.”
6. Shutting Down: Discounting a person’s feelings and trying to shift them in another direction.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” or, “There is no reason to feel that way!”
7. Correcting: Giving the person your opinion or belief about a situation.
“Wait a minute – I never said that!” or, “You don’t remember this accurately.”
8. Interrogating: Using questions to ‘figure out’ or change the person’s behavior.
“When did this begin?” or, “Why did you decide to do that?” or, “What got into you?”
9. Commiserating: Agreeing with the speaker’s judgments of others.
“I know what you mean – your cousin is one of the biggest jerks I have ever met!”
10. One-upping: Convincing the speaker that whatever they went through, you had it worse.
“You think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me when I was in that situation!”
These temptations are actually premature attempts to connect. Most people listen with the intent to reply. When another person speaks, we are usually 'listening' at one of four levels:
  1. ignoring
  2. pretending
  3. selective listening
  4. attentive listening
Very few of us ever practice the highest form of listening ~ empathic listening. Only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say, another 30 percent by our sounds, and 60 percent by body language.

Empathetic Listening is a combination of
  1. Having the intention to connect
  2. Focusing on clarifying the speakers needs first
  3. Remembering that criticism is someone's poorly expressed feelings and unmet needs.
  4. Checking the timing before offering your feelings, suggestions, corrections, etc.
In saying this, it is important to understand the benefits and process of Empathic Listening, because it plays such a vital role in the overall process of Empathic Communication. So now lets explore some the benefits of Empathic Listening and the process by which it is done.

Empathic Listening

The Benefits of Empathic Listening

Here is a list of benefits that arise through empathic listening.
1. builds trust and respect,
2. enables the one in need to release his/her emotions,
3. reduces tensions,
4. encourages the surfacing of information
5. creates a safe environment for sharing and problem solving
The Process of Empathic Listening
1. Give the person you are connecting with your full attention. Remember that the person in front of you is your sole focus at this singular moment in time. Multitasking, is a great thing, but not appropriate when working empathically with another person, particularly when practicing empathic listening. Their problem is in your hands, so your understanding and your time are reversely in theirs.

2. Do not speak when the other person is in the middle of communicating their issue. Empathic listening means that it is your job to actually hear what is being said, and reach to the heart of the topic to achieve full understanding of the situation. In doing this you need to find out specifics such as who is involved, what the actual problem is, and what are the extenuating circumstances that circle the problem. All of this information goes to help you give the best informed resolution you can find. Without it, perhaps through the act of not listening closely enough, you might miss an intrinsic part of the problem.

3. Offer a summary of what you have heard to the speaker, when they are done talking. This means you take what you have heard and reword it, offering them a summarized version of what they have said. It need be no more than an outline going over all of the most important key points of their problem. This affirms to them that you were listening, and reaffirms to yourself what you heard.
More On Empathic Communication

Making practical use of an otherwise esoteric concept such as empathy requires division of the concept into its simplest elements. So here are 6 key steps to effective empathy include:
  1. recognizing presence of strong feeling (ie, fear, anger, grief, disappointment);
  2. pausing to imagine how the other person might be feeling;
  3. stating our perception of the other person's feeling (ie, "I can imagine that must be ..." or "It sounds like you're upset about ...");
  4. legitimizing that feeling;
  5. respecting the other person's effort to cope with the predicament; and
  6. offering support and partnership (ie, "I'm committed to work with you to ..." or "Let's see what we can do together to ...").
Empathy, and more to the point Empathic Communication, is a two pronged process. The first is an internalization of the other person's perceptions and an translating of it, where in the empathizer attempts to imaginatively perceive the details of an experience, how the other person interprets it, and the emotions associated with it. And this is done, hopefully, without losing their own personal perspective in the process.

The second part of this is an external process where in the empathizer, after assessing all of the things that were broken down in the internalization process, decides on the best approach to take with the person they are empathizing with. In other words, the empathizer decides on the best way to more closely relate with the other person in order to help them and/or offer them support.

A wonderful website called Epatica Resolutions, which provides Conflict Resolution Services, Coaching and Training, says this about Empathic Communication. (All rights to this information are reserved to the parent website and are offered here as a means of better understanding what Empathic Communication is)
"Empathic Communication is the set of skills and structures for creating empathic connection and generating creative, collaborative results. It is based on the ground breaking work of Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. known as Nonviolent Communication which has been used for over 40 years, on 5 continents to bring resolution and healing to people who have experienced intense and tragic conflict. The primary process in Empathic Communication is empathy, for both self and other, structured as alternating processes that energize the process of co-creation..

Involving both our imaginations and our speech, Empathic Communication has two separate dimensions; that which happens in our consciousness and that which we say and do. Good results require both. Without the intent to find a solution that satisfies everyone’s fundamental needs, no communication technique alone will create lasting results. Conversely, without skill, often our best intentions remain unfulfilled. We call these two dimensions respectively, Part A – Consciousness and Part B – Speech.

Part A – Consciousness includes three parts, (1) awareness, (2) choice, and (3) silent empathy for self and others. It involves the awareness of events, and our interpretations of them and most importantly it includes an awareness of the choice point available in any moment to choose our response. An empathic response is always a choice. It may not always be the preferred choice - for example, in the check out line at the grocery store, or in making a deposit at the bank, but in conflict, it is the constructive choice. The final component includes both silent self-empathy and silent guessing about the internal experience of the others involved, what they might be feeling and needing in the moment and imagining the kinds of actions that might meet everyone’s needs.

Part B –Speech: The spoken elements of Empathic Communication include, (1) Empathy for another person or people -surfacing their feelings and needs; (2) Transparency – expressing one’s own feelings and needs; and (3) Requests and Strategic thinking – once everyone’s needs are on the table and there has been an empathic connection between the parties, solutions tend to naturally arise that meet everyone’s needs. Empathic Communication emphasizes the value inherent in the order with which these processes are employed. Empathizing with the other person before we self express has a transformative impact on the conversation. Similarly, delaying strategic thinking until empathic connection has been made, distinguishes the kinds of solutions that get created by this process , and makes them welcome, satisfying and sustainable"
Word Usage/Linguistics

In practicing Empathic Communication, there is also another issue of importance that must be considered and that is Word Usage and the understanding of Linguistics itself. Linguistics is defined as: The scientific study of language, which may be undertaken from many different aspects, for example, sounds (phonetics) or structures of words (morphology) or meanings (semantics).

This can be better understood through an example, so lets look at a one:

Bob tells you that he is extremely upset because his wife has cheated on him. He feels utterly betrayed by the actions of someone he is so emotionally close to. Your response to him is, "That really sucks!".

This reaction does not exemplify Empathic Communication because it denotes that fact that you are only half listening to the other person, thus not utilizing Empathic Listening, and that you only care about this at a superficial level, at best.

A better response, after listening carefully to the entire recounting of Bob's story, might be something along the lines of, "You mean your wife was with another man? You must be hurting alot right now, Bob. I can only imagine, really. It must be extremely painful for you right now. I'm here for you if you ever need to talk about it. You've always got a friend in me who will support you through whatever comes out of this situation."

In comparison this response utilizes Empathic listening, because the Empathizer listens attentively enough to recount Bob's story in a simplified manor. then it validates his feelings, while offering him support and the knowledge that he is not alone in his time of sorrow based on his current situation.
Now, the point of ordering the way it is said, the words that are chosen, and the feelings behind it are of equal value as the ability to empathize itself. This is because all of these things either avoid or promote the Obstacles to Empathic Communication we already spoke of.

Had you said something like "I'm so sorry for what you are going through, Bob", you would have been promoting number 4 on the list, which is sympathy. And the point isn't to coddle someone, placate them, or superficially sympathize with them. The point is to show that you understand, are willing to truly listen, and are there to offer healthy support through the crisis. What this means is that you are not offering help that is codependent, where in you attempt to one up them in story telling or you find yourself getting lost/drowning in their situation and emotions.

So, paying attention to the words we use, and the connotations associated with those words is also an important issue. Take the world murder. To the general population, murder is associated with blood, gore, pain, sorrow, grief, anger, and other more vivid imagery to graphic to mention. And take the word abuse, which is associated with suffering, manipulation, victimization, bullying, pain, anguish, and again, more vivid imagery to graphic to mention.

This idea applies to other words that we use, because consciously or subconsciously, the human mind often associates thoughts, ideas, or experiences to words we use. The words hate and contempt feel hard edged, tinged with prejudice, judgment and hate, and even perhaps resentment ~ all negative emotions. While words like love, support, friendship, compassion, kindness, and so on, denote positive emotions ~ happy things based on good experiences from the past. They are soft edged and smooth feeling.

Now think about the words sympathy and pity. What do these two words feel like? What memories do they bring to mind? Are they positive or negative in context? There in is much food for thought, so think about it.

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