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i hear you



Empathic listening is something I get a lot of practice at in my line of work as an acupuncturist, and it's become a life goal of sorts for me to continually deepen my practice of becoming a better listener.


I've always felt a great deal of compassion for other people, and I hope that I've always been able to express my caring to those who have trusted me enough to share their hearts and minds with me. Looking back, however, I can see that I didn't realize in my younger years just how much of a skill empathic listening really was and how much we can expand on this ability with practice and mindfulness.


I've met people in my life who seem to be naturally good at listening. One friend in particular comes to mind, who, from the moment I met her, has always been so present in her interactions with me and seems to always find the perfect words to say to soothe, to acknowledge, to honor and validate my experience. I've been continually humbled by our interactions and have learned so much from her example over the years. I asked her once how she had learned to be such a good listener, and she just shrugged her shoulders. It wasn't something she had deliberately worked on. It's just a part of her nature.


I, on the other hand, have sought out many books and classes to work on refining this skill. I always thought of myself as a pretty good communicator: I'm open, self-aware, self-reflective, and generally willing to engage in conversation. As I've delved deeper into various models of communication over the last few years, however, I've come to realize just how much more there was for me to learn.


I've had a couple of relationships that were very challenging on the level of communication. I'd had two long-term relationships prior in which communication was easy, and so I'd assumed I was good at it, but these next two relationships had me questioning whether I had just been with partners who were easy to communicate with. How could it be so easy with one person and so difficult with another? Surely, if they just learned to communicate better, that would fix the problem!


So it was in one of those relationships that I first looked up classes in Nonviolent Communication, hoping that we could attend together and find a way to communicate with each other more effectively, more lovingly, more compassionately.


We never made it to the first class. A power outage and road closure were partially to blame, but, in reality, the relationship was hanging on by a bare thread and was probably already over at a time when I was still holding onto hope of reviving it. We never made it to the next class, either, once the rains had dried up and the roads had been cleared. Instead, we filed for divorce. This started a long and painful, but ultimately rewarding journey of healing for me. Since we hadn't been able to heal our communication challenges together, I decided I was going to attend classes on my own to do my part of the healing. The only person we can ever change is our self, and that was all I had left at that point, so I embarked on the journey on my own. I signed up for my first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) class in early August of 2017, and it was the beginning of a huge transformation in my life.

I learned so much in these classes. It was eye-opening. I already knew all about the importance of empathy - intuitively, for one, and intellectually from Brené Brown's amazing work. But NVC put empathy in perspective for me in a whole new way, and it provided me valuable tools for how to bring empathy into our relationships.


In his book I Hear You, (which draws on and simplifies a lot of the principles taught in NVC), Michael S. Sorensen calls the process of empathy-giving "validating." I could have probably diffused so many arguments in those two challenging relationships had I understood this important piece sooner.


One partner I lived with used to come home from work and express her discontent about her boss. I struggled a bit to hear it, and I would bring up arguments in her boss's defense, encouraging her to consider a different perspective. She would invariable get upset when I did so. It was too uncomfortable for me to just take in what she was saying without piping in, but she didn't feel good when I did, and it would foster disconnect between us. Knowing what I know now, I probably could have contributed to a much more harmonious atmosphere and deeper connection if I'd known how to validate her and express empathy for her experience, rather than try to point out how she could view things differently. NVC stresses the value of choosing connection over correction. Such an important piece to remember, always! I'm far from being perfect at this, but I am mindful of it now, and I can catch myself and redirect more often than not.


Sorensen points out in his book that validating doesn't mean we have to agree with someone. It only means that we are letting them know we can understand how they must be feeling given their circumstances. It means we're hearing them. We're listening with empathy and letting them know that their feelings are valid (regardless of whether we agree with them or not). Given the opportunity, we might still be able to offer our perspective later on, but it serves us not to lead with advice. If and when we do offer it later (once we're sure it is welcome, and once we've given ample empathy first), it's likely to be much better received.


I'll be back soon to share more of what I've learned in my NVC practice and the doors it's opened for me. For now, I leave you with the invitation to give validating a try next time a friend or loved one comes to you with a grievance. Try to connect to the emotion that may be behind their experience and take a guess at it. For instance: Gosh, this must have been so frustrating for you. Or: I can only imagine how scary this must have felt for you. Or maybe: That must have taken a lot of courage. See how they respond and whether you feel more connected to them.


If you want to delve deeper into this subject matter, check out Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships and Michael S. Sorensen's book I Hear You. You can also find tons of great clips on YouTube of seminars Marshall gave during his living years (he passed away a few years ago). For in-person classes, check out http://nvcsantacruz.org/, or search for a local NVC Meetup where you live.

I'll also write more in a future post on the importance of self-empathy. Such an important practice!

So much love.


Angie K. 💗

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