“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen R. Covey
All my life, I’ve been told I’m a good listener. From a young age, friends would seek me out for advice, to vent about their problems, to just talk. As I’ve grown older, I found that in many instances people seek me out when they are feeling especially vulnerable: when they are having a crisis, a breakdown, a particularly emotional moment. When I read the quote above, I completely agreed. Most people do listen just to respond. But I think the reason I’ve been sought so frequently is because, especially in those situations, I listen just to listen. I like listening. And more importantly, I like being there for someone who needs it.
But what makes a good listener? I started to think about how I was raised. I grew up in a house with my grandparents, and older people have certain characteristics. They speak more slowly, they eat more slowly, they live their life at a slower pace. This opens up room for silence, for quiet, for reflection. It’s not to say we should never be loud – whenever the extended family came over, it was hard to shut us up! We talked and laughed and played games all night – it was loud, raucous, talking over each other, making jokes. There was lots going on, and we had a great time. But on a daily basis, the house was quiet. I was also an only child, and even though I saw my cousins and friends very frequently, I think this allowed me enough downtime to practice silence. To practice imagination, observation, creativity – and to practice the enjoyment of spending time alone. This is, I believe, another key to being a good listener: be grounded in who you are, and your heart opens naturally to others.
Everyone wants to be heard. If we were all better listeners, the world would be a much happier place. We need to be heard in order to feel validated, to hear our feelings expressed out loud, to work through our issues. Often, when someone is in need of a good listener, all they really require is another person to nod, and say “I understand” – to maybe offer a similar instance that happened to you. Drawing on your own past experiences helps people feel they are not alone in their struggles. You share. You bond. Above all this, though, is the simple act of listening. It’s almost unimportant what you say: you can give advice, sure. But how often is that advice related to the very act of what you’re doing? In almost all scenarios, the situation at hand can be improved by practicing empathy.
Many have written on the need for empathy in order to actually listen, and not just listen to respond. This is absolutely true. But the real question is not why don’t we listen – it’s how can we improve? How do we become better listeners? It’s easy enough to say “have more empathy,” but what does this look like in practice? Where do you begin?
Adults are more than capable of becoming better listeners, at reminding themselves to embody empathy. But it is so much easier if we begin this process at childhood. When we are allowed and encouraged to be quiet, to contemplate, to observe. Children also absorb what they watch, read and listen to – this is why it’s absolutely vital to have empathy reflected in pop culture. Some examples from my own childhood include Black Beauty, experienced entirely from the horse’s perspective, or the song “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, with lyrics like “I know every rock and tree and creature/has a life, has a spirit, has a name.” Despite their flaws, references like these are important in developing an empathy-based worldview. They allow children to learn that others have their own agency, their own identity, and their own feelings
This is one reason representation is so important in pop culture – if, from a young age, you experience diverse personalities vicariously through their stories, you grow to be an adult who can more easily imagine what it’s like to be someone else. The ability to see from multiple perspectives is not only essential for empathy, it also fuels creativity and critical thinking skills.
One of the other prompts was the quote “He who opens a school door, closes a prison” (Victor Hugo). This is huge for our ability to empathize – we go to school not only to learn, but to learn how to be human. How to socialize with others, how to be a good friend, how to stand up for each other. In a world of empathy, violent crime would be all but eliminated – we would practice doing no harm to others, as if it would directly harm ourselves. Institutionalized poverty would be immediately addressed, and we’d lift each other up within our communities and with our policies. How many of our problems stem from an inability to listen? Imagine the need for fewer and fewer prisons, as we become a more empathetic, selfless, understanding world. This is certainly an oversimplification – but it really does all begin with empathy. When your struggle becomes my struggle, everything changes.
We have it in our power to make this a reality. You, as you read this, can make your next decision based on empathy.
I’ll never forget what my grandfather once said, long before I was born. He and my grandmother had five young children at the time, and they had been out in the town one evening. They came back home to discover that the house had been robbed. Now, my grandfather could have become angry, like many of us would; he could have complained that his hard-earned money was spent on items now lost; he could have blamed the thief for stealing. But he did none of these things. Instead, looking around at what had been taken – the valuables, the television, etc. – my grandfather simply said, “They must have needed it more than us.” This, to me, is the height of empathy.
As adults, it can be easy to have empathy when things are going your way – when you’re happy, when you’re in a good mood, when you’re having a good day. The real test comes when you’re angry; when you’ve had a terrible day; when everything is going wrong. So how do we practice empathy in the moments when we’re consumed with our own negative feelings?
Here’s one method, and I have to give credit to the show Sense8 for reinvigorating this idea in myself and providing a concrete example for a specific technique. In the show, (spoiler alert, but not really) there are a handful of people around the world who are connected. They literally shift between inhabiting each other’s bodies – one minute I’m Riley, the next minute I’m Sun. So, when I’m having trouble understanding someone’s perspective, or I’m in the middle of an argument with my significant other, I “put myself in their shoes”. I try to imagine I am them – what am I feeling right now? Why am I saying what I’m saying, what is my motivation? I try to transcend my own feelings, momentarily, and put myself in their brain.
This is how we can use empathy even if, in the heat of the moment, we’ve intellectually forgotten its importance. Pretending I am you. After all, we are fundamentally interconnected, all of us. It can help to remember this mantra: I am you. You are me. We are they. And when we have trouble with our ego getting in the way, this one is a good reminder to be selfless, that we are all one: All is impermanent, all is without a self. Whatever your mantra, let’s practice it with empathy – let’s listen to truly understand.