Practicing empathetic listening

Lessons learned from an introduction to nonviolent communication presentation.

Practicing empathetic listening
Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Earlier this year, I was on the phone with my friend Jasmine, who was sharing how lonely she felt in her grief. When she tried to talk to people about it, they’d offer her advice or suggestions like going to group therapy, taking time off work, or writing about her feelings.

When she finished telling me this, my response was to offer her advice she didn’t ask for - which was exactly what she was complaining about others doing!

While my intentions were good, this put my friend in an awkward position. She wanted to be understood but received advice she didn’t want and wasn’t in a place to act upon.

Today, I learned about the skill of reflecting a person’s needs back to them when they’re expressing something they’re struggling with.

I learned about this in a 2015 presentation by Jeff Brown, a nonviolent communication trainer, at Maharishi International University’s Sustainable Living Center where he presented an introduction to nonviolent communication.

During the presentation, Jeff led an exercise where a participant told a real story about a conflict happening in his family and how he felt unable to help. After the participant told the story, Jeff had audience members respond using prompts on cards that varied from offering advice, telling a similar story, not acknowledging the story, changing subjects, etc.

The participant continued talking about this experience, and during the second round, Jeff had audience members reflect the speaker's needs back to him through questions. An audience member might say something like, “I’m sorry this is happening with your family. Are you wishing you could help reestablish a sense of stability in your family?”

The participant telling his story noted that the second round of responses felt much better and he felt like the audience members wanted to understand him.

This skill of reflecting needs back is important for a few reasons:

  1. Often when we listen to people expressing frustration, we have a natural tendency to “listen to respond,” which is when you are preparing a response to the person while they are talking. This approach makes it difficult for the listener to really hear what’s being said and the needs that they are expressing.
  2. When we listen to respond, the response is often a solution or a story about when we experienced something similar. This shifts the attention away from the frustrated person and onto you. While you may feel like you’re being supportive, you’ve actually taken away a valuable opportunity for that person to be heard and understood.
  3. In conversation, it’s natural to contextualize the story you’re hearing with your own life experiences - that’s just basic empathy. However, we don’t actually know how the frustrated person is thinking about the situation or how they’d go about resolving the tension.
  4. And lastly, and probably the most important point, offering unsolicited advice in this way doesn’t honor the frustrated person’s wisdom. They’ve probably considered the solution you’re offering them plus a hundred others.

Reflecting a person’s needs back to them demonstrates that you’re listening and keeps the conversation focused on the other person. It creates space for them to be heard and to share their experience with someone who cares, which is monumental in our ability to navigate difficult moments.

Jeff used a card deck with universal needs for his facilitation, and while I couldn’t find it, I did find a free NVC feelings and needs list from Sociocracy for All.

I don’t think anyone would expect you to have this list on hand when you’re talking to them, but a basic familiarity is helpful.

✨ Kiana