Inviting the power of empathy into our lives

When I meet people socially, and they learn that I run a professional empathetic listening practice, I hear a wide range of responses.  Some people are confused, not sure what that entails.  Some are surprised.  (“Wow, people pay you to listen to them?”)  But many respond with a sort of “a-ha” expression.  They say things like, “We all need that so much!”  And probably the most common response I hear is, “Oh, I could use some help with my listening skills!  I want to do it, but I find myself talking more than listening.”

People’s responses confirm for me the intuition I had, upon starting my practice years ago, that we all benefit deeply from being listened to – truly heard – more than we generally are in our day-to-day lives.  Our culture is so rushed.  Most of us are racing back and forth amongst our workplaces, our various appointments, the grocery store, maybe going out dancing or to see a show… By the time we get home at the end of the day, it’s all we can do to veg out in front of the television or computer, and then flop exhaustedly into bed, waiting to do it all again tomorrow.  We tend to spend very little time speaking from the heart and truly being heard… nor in listening quietly and deeply to others, taking in their reality and enriching our own.

Years ago, a friend and I decided to attend a local introductory talk by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC).  What he spoke about was so simple, yet so transformative, that it changed both of our lives immediately.  We subsequently read his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and we co-founded a local NVC practice group.  Both of those activities were meaningful and enriching to me.  But what I appreciated most about the experience was that my friend suggested that she and I begin meeting every two weeks to talk deeply and give each other our full attention, support, and empathy, with no interruptions, distractions, judgments, or advice.  I thought it sounded like a wonderful idea.  And sure enough, as we made this a regular practice, it deepened my connection to myself and my values, and my connection to her as a friend.  More than ten years later, we are still meeting every two weeks for these conversations, and they continue to enrich my life deeply.

So, I want to encourage you, the reader, to find a space and time to listen deeply to another, and have them listen to you.  There are powerful gifts to be found on either end of the exchange.  You might think of a friend you admire and feel comfortable with, and approach them with the idea.  A helpful structure to follow is for one person to begin, and share whatever thoughts and feelings have been alive for them in the past week or two.  The listener may nod, smile, or offer brief interjections of understanding or support (“Wow, I know exactly what you mean!” or “I can really relate to that experience”) but without taking the focus away from the speaker.  When the speaker feels complete – often after about an hour – then you switch roles until the next speaker has shared enough to feel complete.  It can be a surprisingly powerful experience when each person has felt and expressed their own truth, and each has been enriched by hearing the other’s truth.  These exchanges can help us gain clarity about our values and the direction of our own lives, and can also support a powerful closeness and camaraderie between the two participants, especially over time. I invite you to try it and see for yourself.

I believe that this greater sense of self, and a greater sense of connection to others, also benefits the larger community.  I have been toying with the idea of setting up “listening salons,” where a group of us would gather and pair up in such a way, perhaps for shorter exchange periods such as 20-30 minutes. These events would be similar to the Dream Into Change salons I have recently begun hosting, but they would focus on general emotional support rather than specific ideas and projects. I can host them locally in Portland and/or in various other cities as I travel. I’d love to hear your feedback as to whether an event like that would appeal to you; please feel free to comment below, or email me directly.

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