Now we put the shoe on the other foot and consider how to listen, rather than speak, more skilfully. When others are speaking to us, what is our position? What is our frame of mind? The answers will vary depending on situational factors, personal history, emotional habits and more.
In the context of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), when we listen, the goal is to receive another person’s words empathically. Marshall Rosenberg (NVC originator) defines “listening empathically” as “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being”. Listening empathically is the opposite of listening in a defensive or disengaged way; we could say it means listening with our hearts.
In NVC, no matter what words people use to express themselves, we listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
One way to discover another person’s needs is to reflect back the speaker’s feelings, especially if they are charged. “So you are feeling X?” Even if you’re wrong, the speaker has a chance to correct your perception, and in the process know her own thoughts better.
Sometimes when we think we are being empathetic, we are giving advice or reassurance or explaining our own position or feelings. If we go straight to “fixing” mode, it often ignores the other person’s feelings and blocks a potential connection. We can wait until a specific request for help or advice is made.
Listening empathically takes patience. Our presence can create a safe space in a tense situation, but the process can’t be rushed or short-circuited. When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves. Patience is an important virtue in the Buddha’s teachings. Some say that if we train ourselves in patience, awakening will follow.
A related goal is to know ourselves well enough to see when our own feelings are blocking empathetic listening. This is a point at which we can really look inside: what is our body telling us? Is there fear? Frustration? What are our own observations, feelings, and needs in this moment? We don’t need to say them out loud, but we can use this basic mindfulness practice to understand what is happening right now. Is our resistance to this current situation preventing us from being completely present with it?
So much to learn. And we can start by attempting to listen to others with our full attention, with no agenda other than trying to understand their feelings and needs. Are we willing to start over and over again in developing the ability to listen empathetically?