If people don’t listen to you, could it be because you have nothing interesting to say? “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” says Stephen R. Covey in his bestseller book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Listening, according to Covey, can be reflective (done with the intent of replying) or empathic (done with the intent of understanding). Dr. Covey has identified five levels of listening placing empathic listening as the highest form of listening. The other four lower forms of listening are ignoring, pretending to listen, selective listening and attentive listening. Empathic listening says Covey “is getting inside another person’s frame of reference, seeing the world the way others do, understanding their paradigms and understanding how they feel.” It seems empathic listening can come in manipulating flavor (seeking to change or improve people after understanding them) or understanding flavor (seeking to just understand, neither to impose upon nor improve people). I believe the purpose of empathic listening, as advocated by the above quote, is a self-centered and insincere way of influencing people by using the manipulative “flavor” on them.
Empathic listening is calculating. Dr. Covey writes all of empathic listening is done mainly to increase your Emotional Bank Account (EBA), defined by Covey to mean “the amount of trust that is built up in a relationship” He calls empathic listening “the key to making deposits in the EBA”. His use of words like investment, withdrawals, balances, reserves might be an innocuous metaphor or the true reflection of the shrewd meaning. Dr. Covey writes “…the essence of empathic listening is that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually”. So empathic listening is a tool used to improve your financial standing in the emotional bank of interpersonal relationships. People are interested in themselves, therefore if you show genuine interest in them, you can understand them and if they think you understand them, says Covey, they’ll make a large deposit in the Emotional Bank Account under your name. Once the “trust” is secured they’ll open the gates of their hearts for you. “First seek to understand then you’ll get what you want” empathic listening gurus seem to be saying. I disagree with empathic listening done with intent of achieving an ulterior motive of saving a marriage, making your son eat broccoli or closing a deal with an irritated customer etc. The real intent to understand should have sufficed with understanding the other person. Relationships are not sales pitch competitions. For example, if you’re listening empathically to your teenage son to dissuade him from joining a boy’s band, can we really say you’re listening to understand him or is it because you’ve learned that threats and counsels wouldn’t work?
Empathic listening is cunning. It seeks to control them by exploiting peoples’ basic psychological need to be understood. By satisfying this need, an empathic listener toys with your vulnerability. Dr. Covey writes “Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with…” this accurate data is getting inside other peoples’ heads as a means of power over them. He writes empathic listening enables you to “deal with the reality inside another person’s head”. The empathic listener’s goal is to understand and influence you by knowing your weaknesses and seeking to handle your viewpoints. He or she has a certain view which they’re planning on imposing upon you like doing your homework, joining an engineering college, lending them some money, closing a deal, marrying someone etc. This need to influence others, I believe, is what makes empathic listening impossible. This business-oriented treatment of interpersonal relationships promises you influence over others if you can understand them. Listening without the need to influence is only possible when you no longer think your view of the world is right. And if you stop viewing the world as black and white, you’ll get in trouble because your firm sense of self will start shaking.
Empathic listening is a gamble. Dr. Covey rightly points out that empathic listening is a risky exercise. He writes “…it takes a great deal of security to go into empathic listening because you open up yourself to be influenced. You become vulnerable. It is a paradox, because in order to have influence you have to be influenced.” The real empathic listening means interacting with psychological nakedness, with no sense of right or wrong, no personal filters and stereotypical judgements. It is walking into an interpersonal den with a risk of not coming back the same person who went in. Empathic listening is not real listening unless you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. And most people are not willing to lose themselves just yet, which explains why most of them listen with the intent to reply and thereby strengthen their sense of self.
To conclude, real listening is possible only when we have no strings attached to our listening. We truly listen when we no longer consider listening as an investment in human relationships. Empathic listening as embodied by the intent to understand is a cruel and manipulative behavior. How would you feel if you knew someone was using you as a human guinea pig of “how-to” techniques? A real empathic listener opens his/her heart not to lead you to a certain position he/she thinks you should be heading to but to merge with you. The willingness to leave your position makes empathic listening the purest form of communication. When you truly communicate with someone you’re in communion with them. This communion does not seek to understand nor does it seek to be understood. It is a non-calculative, non-manipulative and non-expecting expression of love. It seeks its own fulfillment by creating a bond with another human being. Real empathic listening is a risky endeavor but its rewards are worthwhile.