Principles of Empathic Communication



The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of. --Pascal Suppose you've been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you. "Put these on," he says. "I've worn this pair of glasses for 10 years now and they've really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these." So you put them on, but it only makes the problem worse "This is terrible!" you exclaim. "I can't see a thing!" "Well, what's wrong?" he asks. "They work great for me. Try harder." "I am trying," you insist. "Everything is a blur." "Well, what's the matter with you? Think positively." "Okay. I positively can't see a thing." "Boy, you are ungrateful!" he chides. "And after all I've done to help you!" What are the chances you'd go back to that optometrist the next time you need help? Not very good, I would imagine. You don't have much confidence in someone who doesn't diagnose before he or she prescribes. But how often do we diagnose before we prescribe in communication? "Come on, honey, tell me how you feel. I know it's hard, but I'll try to understand." "Oh, I don't know, Mom. You'd think it was stupid." "Of course I wouldn't! You can tell me. Honey, no one cares for you as much as I do. I'm only interested in your welfare. What's making you so unhappy?" "Oh, I don't know." "Come on, honey. What is it?" "Well, to tell you the truth, I just don't like school anymore." 150 "What?" you respond incredulously. "What do you mean you don't like school? And after all the sacrifices we've made for your education! Education is the foundation of your future. If you'd apply yourself like your older sister does, you'd do better and then you'd like school. Time and time again, we've told you to settle down. You've got the ability, but you just don't apply yourself. Try harder. Get a positive attitude about it." Pause "Now go ahead. Tell me how you feel." We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first. If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. Character and Communication Right now, you're reading a book I've written. Reading and writing are both forms of communication. So are speaking and listening. In fact, those are the four basic types of communication. And think of all the hours you spend doing at least one of those four things. The ability to do them well is absolutely critical to your effectiveness. Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You've spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual's own frame of reference? Comparatively few people have had any training in listening at all. And, for the most part, their training has been in the personality ethic of technique, truncated from the character base and the relationship base absolutely vital to authentic understanding of another person. If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me -- your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your boss, your coworker, your friend -- you first need to understand me. And you can't do that with technique alone. If I sense you're using some technique, I sense duplicity, manipulation. I wonder why you're doing it, what your motives are. And I don't feel safe enough to open myself up to you. The real key to your influence with me is your example, your actual conduct. Your example flows naturally out of your character, of the kind of person you truly are -- not what others say you are or what you may want me to think you are. It is evident in how I actually experience you. Your character is constantly radiating, communicating. From it, in the long run, I come to instinctively trust or distrust you and your efforts with me. If your life runs hot and cold, if you're both caustic and kind, and, above all, if your private performance doesn't square with your public performance, it's very hard for me to open up with you. Then, as much as I may want and even need to receive your love 151 and influence, I don't feel safe enough to expose my opinions and experiences and my tender feelings. Who knows what will happen? But unless I open up with you, unless you understand me and my unique situation and feelings, you won't know how to advise or counsel me. What you say is good and fine, but it doesn't quite pertain to me. You may say you care about and appreciate me. I desperately want to believe that. But how can you appreciate me when you don't even understand me? All I have are your words, and I can't trust words. I'm too angry and defensive -- perhaps too guilty and afraid -- to be influenced, even though inside I know I need what you could tell me. Unless you're influenced by my uniqueness, I'm not going to be influenced by your advice. So if you want to be really effective in the habit of interpersonal communication, you cannot do it with technique alone. You have to build the skills of empathic listening on a base of character that inspires openness and trust. And you have to build the Emotional Bank Accounts that create a commerce between hearts. Empathic Listening "Seek first to understand" involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives. "Oh, I know exactly how you feel!" "I went through the very same thing. Let me tell you about my experience." They're constantly projecting their own home movies onto other people's behavior. They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact. If they have a problem with someone -- a son, a daughter, a spouse, an employee -- their attitude is, "That person just doesn't understand." A father once told me, "I can't understand my kid. He just won't listen to me at all." "Let me restate what you just said," I replied. "You don't understand your son because he won't listen to you?" "That's right," he replied. "Let me try again," I said. "You don't understand your son because he won't listen to you?" "That's what I said," he impatiently replied. "I thought that to understand another person, you needed to listen to him," I suggested. 152 "OH!" he said. There was a long pause. "Oh!" he said again, as the light began to dawn. "Oh, yeah! But I do understand him. I know what he's going through. I went through the same thing myself. I guess what I don't understand is why he won't listen to me." This man didn't have the vaguest idea of what was really going on inside his boy's head. He looked into his own head and thought he saw the world, including his boy. That's the case with so many of us. We're filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what's going on inside another human being. When another person speaks, we're usually "listening" at one of four levels. We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all. We may practice pretending. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Right." We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the constant chatter of a preschool child. Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening. When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of "active" listening or "reflective" listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationship, and often insults those "listened" to in such a way. It is also essentially autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical. You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate. When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It's an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment. And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it's that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually. Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60 percent by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thought, feelings, motives, and interpretation, you're dealing with the reality inside another person's head and heart. 153 You're listening to understand. You're focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul. In addition, empathic listening is the key to making deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a withdrawal when a person regards your efforts as manipulative, self-serving, intimidating, or condescending because you don't understand what really matters to him. Empathic listening is, in and of itself, a tremendous deposit in the Emotional Bank Account. It's deeply therapeutic and healing because it gives a person "psychological air. If all the air were suddenly sucked out of the room you're in right now, what would happen to your interest in this book? You wouldn't care about the book; you wouldn't care about anything except getting air. Survival would be your only motivation. But now that you have air, it doesn't motivate you. This is one of the greatest insights in the field of human motivations: Satisfied needs do not motivate. It's only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival -- to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated. When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life. I taught this concept at a seminar in Chicago one time, and I instructed the participants to practice empathic listening during the evening. The next morning, a man came up to me almost bursting with news. "Let me tell you what happened last night," he said. "I was trying to close a big commercial real estate deal while I was here in Chicago. I met with the principals, their attorneys, and another real estate agent who had just been brought in with an alternative proposal. "It looked as if I were going to lose the deal. I had been working on this deal for over six months and, in a very real sense, all my eggs were in this one basket. All of them. I panicked. I did everything I could -- I pulled out all the stops -- I used every sales technique I could. The final stop was to say, 'Could we delay this decision just a little longer?' But the momentum was so strong and they were so disgusted by having this thing go on so long, it was obvious they were going to close. "So I said to myself, 'Well, why not try it? Why not practice what I learned today and seek first to understand, then to be understood? I've got nothing to lose.' "I just said to the man, 'Let me see if I really understand what your position is and what your concerns about my recommendations really are. When you feel I understand them, then we'll see whether my proposal has any relevance or not.' "I really tried to put myself in his shoes. I tried to verbalize his needs and concerns, and he began to open up. 154 "The more I sensed and expressed the things he was worried about, the results he anticipated, the more he opened up. "Finally, in the middle of our conversation, he stood up, walked over to the phone, and dialed his wife. Putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he said, 'You've got the deal.' "I was totally dumbfounded," he told me. "I still am this morning. He had made a huge deposit in the Emotional Bank Account by giving the man psychological air. When it comes right down to it, other things being relatively equal, the human dynamic is more important than the technical dimensions of the deal. Seeking first to understand, diagnosing before you prescribe, is hard. It's so much easier in the short run to hand someone a pair of glasses that have fit you so well these many years. But in the long run, it severely depletes both P and PC. You can't achieve maximum interdependent production from an inaccurate understanding of where other people are coming from. And you can't have interpersonal PC -- high Emotional Bank Accounts -- if the people you relate with don't really feel understood. Empathic listening is also risky. It takes a great deal of security to go into a deep listening experience because you open yourself up to be influenced. You become vulnerable. It's a paradox, in a sense, because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced. That means you have to really understand. That's why Habits 1, 2, and 3 are so foundational. They give you the changeless inner core, the principle center, from which you can handle the more outward vulnerability with peace and strength. Diagnose Before You Prescribe Although it's risky and hard, seek first to understand, or diagnose before you prescribe, is a correct principle manifesting many areas of life. It's the mark of all true professionals. It's critical for the optometrist, it's critical for the physician. You wouldn't have any confidence in a doctor's prescription unless you had confidence in the diagnosis When our daughter Jenny was only two months old, she was sick on Saturday, the day of a football game in our community that dominated the consciousness of almost everyone. It was an important game -- some 60,000 people were there. Sandra and I would like to have gone, but we didn't want to leave little Jenny. Her vomiting and diarrhea had us concerned The doctor was at that game. He wasn't our personal physician, but he was the one on call. When Jenny's situation got worse, we decided we needed some medical advice Sandra dialed the stadium and had him paged. It was right at a critical time in the game, and she could sense on officious tone in his voice. "Yes?" he said briskly. "What is it?" "This is Mrs. Covey, Doctor, and we're concerned about our daughter, Jenny." "What's the situation?" he asked. 155 Sandra described the symptoms and he said, "Okay. I'll call in a prescription. Which is your pharmacy?" When she hung up, Sandra felt that in her rush she hadn't really given him full data, but that what she had told him was adequate. "Do you think he realizes that Jenny is just a newborn?" I asked her "I'm sure he does," Sandra replied. "But he's not our doctor. He's never even treated her." "Well, I'm pretty sure he knows." "Are you willing to give her the medicine unless you're absolutely sure he knows?" Sandra was silent. "What are we going to do?" she finally said. "Call him back," I said. "You call him back," Sandra replied. So I did. He was paged out of the game once again. "Doctor," I said, "when you called in that prescription, did your realize that Jenny is just two months old?" "No!" he exclaimed. "I didn't realize that. It's good you called me back. I'll change the prescription immediately." If you don't have confidence in the diagnosis, you won't have confidence in the prescription. This principle is also true in sales. An effective salesperson first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, the situation of the customer. The amateur salesman sells products; the professional sells solutions to needs and problems. It's a totally different approach. The professional learns how to diagnose, how to understand. He also learns how to relate people's needs to his products and services. And, he has to have the integrity to say, "My product or service will not meet that need" if it will not. Diagnosing before you prescribe is also fundamental to law. The professional lawyer first gathers the facts to understand the situation, to understand the laws and precedents, before preparing a case.A good lawyer almost writes the opposing attorney's case before he writes his own. It's also true in product design. Can you imagine someone in a company saying, "This consumer research stuff is for the birds. Let's design products." In other words, forget understanding the consumer's buying habits and motives -- just design products. It would never work. A good engineer will understand the forces, the stresses at work, before designing the bridge. A good teacher will assess the class before teaching. A good student will understand before he applies. A good parent will understand before evaluation or judging. The key to good judgment is understanding. By judging first, a person will never fully understand. 156 Seek first to understand is a correct principle evident in all areas of life. It's a generic, common-denominator principle, but it has its greatest power in the area of interpersonal relations.

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