Are You Listening Without Empathy?

A real danger for parents who try to learn Active Listening solely from a book’s printed page is their inability to hear the warmth and empathy that must accompany their efforts. Empathy means a quality of communication that conveys to the sender of a message that the listener is feeling with her, putting herself in the shoes of the sender, living, for a moment, inside the sender.

Everyone wants others to understand how she feels when she talks, not just what she is saying. Children, especially, are feeling people. Therefore, much of what they communicate is accompanied by feelings: joy, hate, disappointment, fear, love, worry, anger, pride, frustration, sadness, and so on. When they communicate with parents, they expect empathy with such feelings. When parents don’t empathize, children naturally feel that the essential part of them at that moment–their feeling–is not being understood.

Probably, the most common mistake parents make when they first try out Active Listening is to feed back a response devoid of the feeling component of the child’s message. Here’s an example:

Little Carey, aged six, pleads with his father, who has been trying to encourage him to come into the water while the family is enjoying a day at the beach:

CAREY: I don’t want to go in. It’s too deep! And I’m afraid of the waves.

FATHER: The water is too deep for you.

CAREY: I’m scared! Please don’t make me go in!

This father is completely missing the child’s feelings, and his attempt at feedback shows it. Carey is not sending an intellectual evaluation of the depth of the water. He is sending an urgent plea to his father: “Don’t make me come in because I’m scared stiff!” The father should have acknowledged this with, “You’re scared and don’t want me to force you into the water.”

Some parents find out they are very uncomfortable with feelings–their own as well as their child’s. It is as if they are compelled to ignore a child’s feelings because they cannot tolerate her having them. Or they want quickly to push her feelings out of the picture, and therefore deliberately avoid acknowledging them. Some parents are so frightened of feelings that they actually fail to detect them in their child’s messages.

So, please reflect and ask yourself, “Are you listening without empathy?”