The Power of Empathetic Listening

Today, I had a conversation with an anonymous friend that taught me something about relationships and the power of empathetic listening.
Details are fictitious to protect their identity.

I wanted her to come to a leadership training with me; she had agreed to come in the past but now didn’t want to come. I tried asking questions to uncover objections and rebutting them – classic sales style. It was pushy, uncomfortable, and awkward. I was failing and feeling low energy. As we were walking, I felt distance growing between us.

Then I remembered something: She’s a human being, a dear friend, and I love her and want what’s best for her.

I asked myself in that moment “How can I best love and serve this person?”

My energy immediately changed. I no longer had my selfish goal as my priority. I wanted to understand her plight, and what was going on for her that lead her to feel unable to come.

That’s when we reached a magical point in the conversation:

Honesty, depth, and connection.

She revealed something going on in her marriage I had no clue was happening. Her son was acting out in school. She felt behind in her career. Her Christian husband had conflicting beliefs about how they should be raising their son. She was carrying all of these burdens on her back.

It was suddenly clear that her objections were rooted in genuine suffering which demanded compassion and understanding. We began to dive deeper and focus on how these struggles made her feel. I didn’t give a shit about the training; I cared way more about her experience.

Why people need empathetic listening

We all walk around in life with massive catastrophes, devastating fears, and overwhelming failures. We only show it in the hardness of our eyes and the passivity of our gait. We keep these giant boulders on our backs and carry them through life, pretending to the outside world that they’re not there. Everyone plays the game with us.

If we pretend our suffering isn’t there, it only weighs more. It requires more energy to erect a facade that we are okay and that all’s going well than it does to reveal our suffering.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have deep, intimate friendships in which they feel safe revealing the ugliness in their lives. This is tragic. We need people who can love and support us when we don’t feel like loving or supporting ourselves. And so most people wake up, shoulder their boulders, and walk into the world with a forced smile and no hope.

It is precisely because it is so rare that empathetic listening is so valuable. Some people don’t even have a concept for what it is, because they grew up in an environment where it was never once given to them. It’s a rare treasure that requires someone who has self-developed and self-actualized to the point of being able to temporarily set aside their ego.

Empathetic listening helps others unburden.

If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to listen to someone talk about their problems, pay close attention. You are doing them a greater service than you can imagine. Particularly if it’s the first time they’ve talked about a particular issue with someone else.

What you get to witness, is the unfolding of the human spirit and the release of a great weight on someone’s shoulders. You get to witness their minds and hearts reclaiming their strength through your willigness to listen and be present with them.

When someone releases the poison inside of their heart, it is exposed to sunlight. The sunlight dries the discarded poison and mends the wound from which it spurts.

Your empathetic listening is the light.

Your presence is its warmth.

Your curiosity is its healing.

Do not underestimate your ability to profoundly impact people and change the course of their lives. So many people never share their deepest burdens with anyone. If you find yourself in this situation, take it seriously. You can be a catalyst for positive change. You can be the one who signals to a fearful part of them that revealing pain is safe.

Empathetic listening makes you stronger.

It takes courage, strength, and compassion to be able to set aside your ego long enough to actually give someone empathetic listening.

Courage, because you are diving into the unknown dark and damp chambers of someone else’s life, and you must rise to the occasion to be a beacon of light and hope in the midst of their suffering; you are voluntarily taking on greater responsibility – in the face of all your own problems and insecurities – and you must relinquish your ego in order to do so.

Strength, because what they tell you about themselves will make you reflect on your own shortcomings. You will be forced to confront your own demons through helping others confront theirs. By holding space for others to work on themselves, you are building the muscle of facilitating self-work.

Compassion, because what people need when unburdening their struggles are not solutions – solutions are cheap in the information age and can be found with a google search. People need compassion, to feel understood, loved, and cared genuinely about. The greater your muscle of compassion is for others, the greater it will be for yourself when you need it.

Empathetic listening leads you to the truth.

This is perhaps the most profound realization I had today.

I see very clearly in retrospect that my friend could not have felt comfortable revealing the truth of her struggles unless I changed my attitude from self-interest to love and service to her.

My decision to engage in empathetic listening made it possible for truth to spontaneously emerge. It wasn’t forced. It was genuine and organic. It required no effort other than the decision to set my self-interest aside and focus on hers. Once the energetic balance had shifted, the very essence of the conversation changed. We moved from lower to higher consciousness. We were connected and present and discussing¬†real issues.

It was honestly one of the best conversations I’ve had all year. Not one I expected to occur.

It all started with a question: “How can I best love and serve this person?”

Give that a shot sometime when you’re stuck.

Maybe it’ll help both of you.