I used to think I was quite a good listener. That was until I started a coaching course many years ago now and had to admit that actually I don’t really listen all that well sometimes. I’m not the kind of person who looks over peoples’ shoulders while they speak looking for a better option, or sneak a peek at my watch whenever I can, but my motive for listening is often in order to respond with some profound statement that will blow the other person away.
I listen to respond not to understand.
Empathetic listening takes it much further than that. We actually listen in order to connect with the other person, to understand how they feel, to empathise with them and to show them we are with them in their struggle. We feel what they are feeling not just hear what they are saying. For someone feeling that pain it is a healing experience to have someone be with you in your own pain.
I know this may all be sounding a bit woo woo for some of you and would be for me too to be honest. I’m usually the one in the room saying “really, how practical is that?”. I can honestly say though, having experienced this kind of empathetic listening that it is powerful and very therapeutic to be on the receiving end and also to be the listener.
So, how about with children and young people then?
As I mentioned in our last blog on being with sadness encouraging young people to talk about their feelings is essential in helping them to develop into well rounded adults. The first step in them talking is us listening; and listening in a way that connects deeply with where they are at. This can be done very quickly once a relationship of trust is established. People often think you need lots of time and we’re not talking about therapy or counselling here but having conversations that matter. In those brief moments you have with a child you can connect deeply and profoundly in a way that will enable the healing process to continue for that child.
As I’ve quoted often a phrase I heard Lisa Cherry say once at a conference – what we are doing is creating a space for recovery. We are not trying to ‘fix’ someone but to allow them a safe place to work through their process of healing and recovery – whatever that might look like.
So, what does empathetic listening really look like?
When a child comes and says they are sad and lonely and have no friends we resist the urge to correct them and make them wrong. Our usual response might be;
“That’s not true – you have lots of friends, you’re really popular in the class and we all think you’re great”.
We might think that is making the child feel better, but it just dismisses their feelings and doesn’t connect with them emotionally.
Instead say something like;
“Wow that is a powerful feeling, you must be so sad to feel that way. It’s a horrible feeling to feel that people don’t like you”.
It feels counter-intuitive, but it really does help. Allow space for the child to feel those emotions and to be able to own them. It doesn’t mean they will stay that way, but they need to feel seen and heard before they can find ways to change things.
Another example might be a teenager who is struggling to revise for their exams. They might not articulate that, but their behaviour lets you know that they are stressed out. You could say something like;
“These exams can be so overwhelming, I bet it feels like a heavy weight sometimes which makes you not want to revise. Growing up can be a scary thing sometimes”.
You’ll notice there’s no demand or even request to revise more. We are connecting to empathise not to correct or change behaviour. This is the biggest hurdle I find in schools currently (and has been for many years) – our obsession with behaviour modification. We are on overdrive to make children do what we think they should, what is appropriate and what the education system says we have to.
What is education at the end of the day? Is it like a factory where we need everyone to come out exactly the same, or is it a place where children learn to learn, learn how to be themselves, learn new skills and knowledge yes but also learn how to innovate, how to think differently, be creative and authentic?
Back to the point. If we can ty to be more empathetic in our listening then we might actually hear the reasons why children behave the way they do or struggle with certain aspects of learning. We won’t learn that if we are always quick to fix and quick to move onto something else.
Here’s a few quick tips to help develop empathetic listening;
- Notice how they feel and speak it back to them; “you are really cross about what Billy just did to you”.
- Resist the urge to fix.
- Resist the urge to give solutions.
- Listen more than speak – hard one but keep your mouth shut, give space for them to respond or just be with them in their feelings.
- Notice how you feel about what the child is saying, what feelings does it invoke in you.
‘If you do nothing but strive for the deepest possible understanding of the (child’s) experience, and if you communicate that understanding, that experience will be life changing’. Kahn 1991.