Empathic listening does not work. Unless it is empathic listening.
About 15 years ago I had regular interactions with an acquaintance of mine of whom I had lots of enemy images and judgements, and our interactions were not easy. Life moved on in a way that we nowadays barely meet briefly every few years, yet I still remember a piece of wisdom that he articulated then, and I only started to appreciate lately. In the midst of complex and emotionally charged weeks of interactions, he said: “You see, one day, after all of this is passed, perhaps even on our death beds, we will end up opening hearts to each other and we will find out that we actually love each other. Why should we wait so long to realize that? Why not start treating each other in accordance with love that already is deep in our hearts?” The clarity and purity of this invitation hit me already then, but I did not want it to really hit me, so I kept pushing it away and out of our field. Quite successfully, I must say.
These days, engaging in various different interactions and remembering even many more from the past, I am being reminded of these words and seeing how profoundly they point at a certain danger that lies within the field of human interactions and communication, and specifically also within the field of Nonviolent Communication and the practice of empathic listening at the heart of it.
In my experience empathic listening can, among NVC practitioners, rather quickly become a mechanical activity that we do with each other, leading into ongoing frustration. You know, I have a conflict with, for example, my partner, she express herself, I reflect back correctly what she said and then I go on with my: “…but but but..” Or, if I am really skilled, I wrap it into “and, and, and…”
I still guard and remain within my position of who is right (me) and who is wrong (you). I still protect my little self, my little known universe. Nothing changes, only our field gets more and more drained of energy, juice, hope, flow…, we get more and more tired, start giving up on our needs, compromise…
One of my many mentors, Kazuma Matoba, said, that for him, in essence, communication is willingness to be influenced. I could not agree more with this statement. Namely, when I listen to you, am I really passionately, honestly eager to hear the humanity in you. I am really, honestly trying to hear the pain in your innocent heart? Am really not only open, but actually eager to be influenced by you and what I am hearing from you?
Only when I honestly lean towards you in order to hear your heart and to let your heart touch mine, only when I open enough for my heart to be altered by you, only then am I empathically listening and connecting with you. And when my heart will have been touched and changed by you, I will be changed, my world will be bigger and my reality will gain another dimension. Yet another voice will be added to the universal choir of life that I have been listening to.
Only then can I expect that a shift in our field will happen….
If I don’t intend to listen like this, with my full heart and openness, I may as well choose another way of spending my time, instead of fooling myself that I am such a good listener.