In previous posts I have stressed the importance of listening to others in order to be a great communicator. But listening these days can be hard, real hard. It’s difficult because many different reasons have coalesced together as a barrier to understanding. Some of these reasons include polarizing opinions, lack of time, reduced attention spans and increased distractions. Even history plays a role to make listening a challenge for us who were raised in a western society. Much has been said about the reasons why western societies can have a really tough time listening and this in part because we have been historically imperialistic or colonialist nations. Books and articles have been written on that topic. The consensus is that our western cultures have traditionally imposed their views in other nations and by consequence have deeply paternalistic and patronizing tendencies ingrained into the ways in which we behave and communicate.
In a nutshell, what I mean is that our societies are driven by a very strong sense of success. Success means that our way of seeing the world, doing things or acting comes above of everyone else’s and that view can sometimes get in the way from listening well to others and empathizing with them.
Yet if listening by itself it’s hard, listening with an empathetic heart can be even more challenging. Empathy and sympathy are used sometimes interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Empathy is a skill. It means that you are not just aware of the feelings and emotions of others but that you understand them at a deeper level than sympathy.
Like every skill it can be learned and developed. For some careers, like for healthcare empathy is a must and so it is to be an effective communicator.
They are different ways to develop empathy. Personally, I began to develop empathy as a skill after a summer trip to Mexico. That summer changed my life.
I did not visit the tourist places, I actually spent the days with Fai Foundation in Sonora with my then college sweetheart and visiting kids in Yaqui Indian reservations with lacking food, running water or electricity or nearby community schools. The most vivid image I have is that of the houses were there was no floor, just the red dirt of the Sonoran Desert.
You too can develop empathy and don’t have to go deep into Mexico or far away to do it.
Let’s see how works.
1 – You have to be exposed.
You can start by talking to family members of other people who don’t share your same point of view or experiences.
2- You have to ask questions and listen. What this does it that it gives you a window of understanding as to why they feel the way they do. You don’t have to agree but you can listen.
3- Once you understand why they feel the way they do, you might see that your disagreements are not a personal issue, they are issues due to external circumstances that affect that person.
Seek to understand by listening first and apply empathy – what if it was me?
There is no need to see the issue as right or wrong. Simply try to put yourself into someone else’s shoes.
For example, think about the coal miner in West Virginia in favor of coal rather than clean energy because that what his community has relied on historically. That’s what they know.
4- Dig deep into the issue and try to find a common ground.
Perhaps if the state of West Virginia would begin initiatives to educate coal miners and communities in new vocational skills we could begin a less contentious transition into cleaner energy in those areas and help the communities.
5- Use patience not arrogance to prove your point with evidence.
Be respectful yet firm in what you believe it’s right after re-evaluating your thoughts. If the other party is disrespectful, remove yourself and avoid until it cools down.
Finally, don’t quit listening to other views. It helps you grow and develop empathy and by extension your view of the world that surrounds you.