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How to Be Empathetically Present for Another Person

Excerpted from Ordinary Goodness

A significant challenge in our society is that many people live solitary lives. They may have fragile connections to community through the internet, texting, and social media. Verbal skills seem to be on the decline. Short, quick messages are increasingly becoming the way to communicate. Many people sit staring at computer screens typing for longer and longer periods. I cannot stress enough the importance of a regular, scheduled time to interact with other people, both in family circles and beyond. It is increasingly important to make the effort to create meaningful connections with other people in real-time situations where we can interact face-to-face. I picked up some excellent, compassionate listening skills from a training program where I learned to give emotional support to people diagnosed with terminal diseases. In the training, volunteers learned how to listen actively to both the words the client spoke and the meaning behind the words. We learned how to listen without formulating an opinion, evaluating, or giving advice. Our goal for listening was to try to understand the other person’s frame of reference. We practiced listening for the expression of feelings by paying attention to repeated ideas and emphasized words. One training exercise had us tell emotionally charged stories to each other. Two by two, we sat in chairs with our backs facing each other. One trainee told a story while the other tried to listen attentively, which proved to be difficult while facing the opposite direction. After the exercise, we discussed our experience. Participants reported a feeling of being disconnected to the person who was speaking because they could not see them. We felt frustrated by the challenge of paying attention to what our partner was saying because we could not take in the speaker’s facial expressions and other non-verbal cues without visual contact. The speakers, too, reported a reduction in the feeling of being well understood. Some trainees noticed a strong urge to break away from the back-to-back formation and wanted to reach around to the other person to make eye contact and show that they were present, interested, and caring.

The point of the exercise was to help us identify how to be empathetically present for another person. We brainstormed helpful ideas to keep in mind when listening to another person:

  • Begin with ordinary caring. Imagine that what you are about to receive by listening is similar to receiving a valuable gift.
  • Think about the courage and/or vulnerability that may be necessary for the one speaking to divulge what they are about to say.
  • Listen with kindhearted interest. In other words, try to notice when you begin categorizing what you hear as good or bad, right or wrong, and try to return to ordinary listening.
  • Be sensitive to the communication that comes through the whole experience and not only to the words being spoken. Listen for the expression of feelings.

I have found great value in becoming aware of my listening style. I have discovered that there is a relationship between the way I listen to people and the way I listen to life and its intuitive prompts. When my mind is too busy with speaking and asserting points of view, I am not available to receive the wealth of information that life is full of. Like the notes of good music, our thoughts ought to have lots of spaces between them, places to breathe, to receive, and to listen. To receive the message that life is broadcasting, it may be necessary to reduce sensory input—for example, by limiting television viewing for a while, going without a smartphone for a day, leaving the books for a moment, and stepping into the solitude of doing nothing but listening. Without this kind of nourishing solitude, my ability to be present for others is severely reduced. My capacity to be compassionately present for others deteriorates when I don’t take time for stillness. When I step away from the stimulations of life and close my eyes for a moment, I discover that my mental noise reduces also, and the conversations in my mind slow down. It gives me a chance to catch my breath and turn my attention kindly to the world within with the same compassion and attentiveness that I have used when listening to people.

Excerpted from Ordinary Goodness by Edward Viljoen with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Edward Viljoen.

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