Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Did You Hear What I Didn't Say?

I teach active, empathic listening to grad students.  Many of them are highly skilled, multi-talented computer scientists from universities around the globe.
Image result for stressed coworker
Team member's stress
When we listen accurately, everyone benefits.  We can better understand
  • our client's needs
  • our supervisor's instructions
  • our team member's stress.
Showing awareness of unspoken feelings can hasten connection and problem-solving in difficult situations.

Empathic listening might involve guessing at a person's underlying feelings and tentatively reflecting those feelings back.  Since our emotional vocabulary might be limited to Seseme Street feelings, I provide students with lists of emotions and ask them to identify the feelings they have had in the last day, week, or month.

After the students learn and roleplay responding with empathy, I  pull troubling statements out of a bag and go around the circle, asking each student to respond to a different statement.  These are all real statements that people have said to me.

  1. Young adult:  “I hate it when my parents’ friends ask me what I’m going to do with my life.  I don’t know what I want to do yet and they really want me to know.”
  2. Friend:  “I spilled coffee on my keyboard.  Fried everything."
  3. Friend:  “My mom’s in the psycho ward.  She tried to overdose."
  4. Friend:  "My husband's so depressed, he hung a noose from a rafter in the hall.  Every day when I come home, I climb up on a ladder and cut it down.  The next day, it's up again."
The exercise is hard, but particularly hard for some of my foreign students.  Maybe they can't imagine that there is an underlying, unspoken feeling, and probably, the exercise makes no sense to them.

After my last workshop.  I asked one of my students how he felt about the class.
"It was interesting," he said.
"If one of your friends back home told you about a personal problem, what's the first thing you would say?" I asked.
"I'd say, 'thank you,' to my friend."
"Thank you?"
"It's so unusual," he said, "for someone to tell me a problem that I'd say thank you to them - thank you for trusting me with the problem."
 Thank you, my student for giving me that information. It will help me teach this unit. 

Possible Answers
Seriously, there's no "right" answer.  Just try to imagine what the other person is going through and reflect it back.  Read their body language if you can.  This response is just a first step in a longer conversation.  Also, be mindful of really really bad stuff and let your response reflect that awareness.
1.  "That must be embarrassing for you - to not be able to give them an answer."
2.  "Oh crap!! That's awful.  You must feel so mad at yourself."
3.  "You must be so shocked and worried."
4.  "Maybe he's trying to tell you something."   -- no just kidding, that would be a terrible response -- How about, "You must be afraid to go home."  or  "It sounds like you are feeling completely helpless."

(I want to cry thinking of these examples.  Please, shoot me an empathic response.)


  1. I love the student's comment about thanking his friend for trusting him with the problem (this might be especially true in cultures where people do not usually talk about problems). A friend recently had a long conversation with me about his grief over a parent's death, and I did thank him for trusting me. Re. statements 3 & 4. In addition to the empathy (You must be so shocked and worried), you could also say, What kind of help do you need right now?
    It is good that the people working with volatile chemicals learned that it's more important to communicate clearly (speaking and listening, and asking questions) than to worry about being rude or saving face.

    1. It's important that the other person confirm that you got the feeling right. After they say, "yeah" and feel understood, it might be okay to say "What kind of help do you need right now?" There are all kinds of good things to say - and sometimes a big hug says much more than any words can.