Listening with Empathy is the Key to Understanding

By Joel Mlay. Joel is a freelance writer and blogger from Washington DC, U.S.A. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” (Stephen R. Covey)

The quote is from Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where Habit 5 states, Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

While listening is a necessary step towards understanding, the intent to understand can be thwarted by other intentions, like the desire to respond based on prior information or knowledge. It is indeed common to hear someone say, while another is speaking, ‘I know what you are saying’. One may, indeed, know what another person is saying, but does that mean that they actually understand?

There is a slightly different way of stating the idea. In the introduction to his classic book, The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel points out that it is important to know what we see, not to just see what we know. Here, to know what we see means to understand what we are seeing. Both statements are pointing to a recognition of the difference between knowing or knowledge and understanding.

We know that information is knowledge (and knowledge is power).  We know too that we can acquire and accumulate a lot of information, a lot of knowledge that does not have any effect at all. In other words, information or knowledge that does not produce positive change or is not acted upon is useless.

Thus, from the outset, I agree with the statement that ‘most people don’t listen to understand; they listen to reply’.

The difference between listening to understand and listening to reply is the attribute of the virtue of empathy; and what is empathy? Empathy is the ability to feel and be one with the person speaking; being able to identify, emotionally, with the person you are listening to.  In Psychology, empathy is defined as “the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own”. There is the crucial word, understanding.

We misunderstand, misjudge (or simply judge) others because we don’t get to know their experience, emotions and feelings. Albert Einstein is quoted to have said, “any fool can know. The point is to understand”. In other words, hearing with ears is not the same as listening. We can hear and yet not listen.

In interpersonal interactions and communications, it is vitally important that we understand those we interact with. Whether in a discussion or debate where different points of view are expressed, we will not be able to relate to one another if we are not able to cross over from our point of view to our opposites’ worldview. Indeed, we would avoid demonizing one another if we understood the other person’s point of view.

The Greek word, epistemai, can best be translated, ‘I know how I know’ from which we get the philosophical term, epistemology, the knowledge of understanding. To understand is to stand upon whatever it is that we are understanding. It is different from knowledge or information, which can be acquired simply from studying, books or a myriad of other sources without an experiential element.

Another Greek word, gnosko, literally means to know or to have knowledge of, and epignosko, means to know thoroughly. The root of both of them is gnosis, or knowledge, and not fully, understanding. To listen with the intent to understand means putting aside all prior information and knowledge, to enter into the worldview of the speaker. Technically, listening is a conscious mental act directed at understanding. It goes beyond hearing. Hearing involves ears primarily; listening is mental.

When people are hurting, for example, they need someone listening with their heart and mind. They hardly need information or knowledge.  A manager will do well to listen to an employee who is struggling to keep up with production standards because of family issues. It is not much use for the manager to simply dismiss the employee’s struggles because they are not work related

Similarly, a counselor dealing with a patient suffering from depression will need to listen to the patient’s emotions and feelings rather than attempting to simply prescribe yoga or exercise. Listening opens up opportunities to express inner feelings which may have been repressed. This in turn leads to clearer thinking, alternative viewpoints and a path to health. That is the importance of listening, especially for those in authority, counselors and therapists.

But, listening is not for professionals only. Parents need to listen to their children. Husbands should learn to listen to their wives and wives their husbands.; Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Jews and Muslims and so on. Our coexistence depends on listening to one another because we are inter-related at many different levels.

Sometimes it is best to listen in silence

I volunteer preparing and serving breakfast for needy neighbours at a local church. One of the guests who comes to breakfast happens to be an acquaintance from another city we both lived in, in the past. Naturally, every morning he shows up for breakfast I take a few moments to join him at the table and just chit chat about anything from the past or present. Our informal chats have always been cordial and uplifting.

One morning though, as I tried to engage in conversation with him, he simply sat there, making eye contact and nodding in affirmation, and, by all indications, being present but not engaging in discussion.

Instead of trying to pester him with my talk I knew he needed to just be quiet. So, my contribution was to just be there in silence with him. I knew my solidarity with him in silence would be more valuable than all the words I could utter. I too have moments like that when all I need is to feel my emotions, be reflective and not listen to any opinions and know-how. As Elbert Hubbard aptly put it, “whoever does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words”.

6 comments on “Listening with Empathy is the Key to Understanding

  1. Drew Brown on

    Excellent article, Mr. Mlay. I am convinced that most of us are emotionally starved, nowadays, partly because empathetic listening is a lost art. A few years ago a friend described me as an empath. My supervisor at work credits me with “emotional intelligence.” To the extent that they are correct, I attribute that quality to knowing distinctly how painful it is to feel unheard or misunderstood. What is required is an ability to focus and be rooted in the moment, undistracted by nearby happenings or one’s own thoughts: a tall order amid the “noise” of present day life. I believe compassion , actually caring about the emotional well-being of the person you’re talking to is the prerequisite for said ability. I have noticed people visibly relax upon recognizing that a conversational partner is actually listening with interest. We owe each other that much at the very least.

  2. Cary Umhau on

    Beautifully and clearly said. I love the quote about someone who can’t understand our silence not being able to understand our words. This piece has given me lots to think about in my own desire to grow as an empathetic person and good listener. Thanks for prompting my thinking.

  3. Lettithea on

    This mr Mlay, is absolutely true and accurate, all of us needs a “willing ear” no comments and no interruptions! Being that emphatically person is absolutely an gift! Thanks for reminding us!

  4. Erica L Martin on

    It’s best to listen in silence all the time – let the person finish what they’re saying before you respond. They may not be saying what you think they’re saying. I admit I’m guilty of interrupting people, or thinking I know what they’re saying, but I’ve been working on trying to listen actively to what someone is saying, and then responding when they’re done talking.

  5. Erica L Martin on

    It’s best to listen in silence all the time – let the person finish what they’re saying before you respond. They may not be saying what you think they’re saying. I admit I’m guilty of interrupting people, or thinking I know what they’re saying, but I’ve been working on trying to listen actively to what someone is saying, and then responding when they’re done talking. If more people would do that we might actually have fewer misunderstandings in our society.


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