Building better relationships

By Rob Furlong

Listening is more than just hearing

American author, Sherry Turkle, has written extensively on the impact of technology on human relationships and the ways we do or don't communicate with each other.

In a recent book she commented on the rise of the smart phone and how society's preoccupation with it was contributing to a lack of empathy among people.

She tells the story of a young girl, aged 10 who, like many of her generation, spends a large amount of time on the phone.

The girl was called into the Principal's office, not because of her phone use, but because she had invited all but one of her classmates to her upcoming birthday party.

When asked by the Principal how she would feel if she was the one who had been excluded, the young girl replied in a monotone voice, "I have no feeling about that at all."

As the Principal confided to Turkle, the girl was not "a bad kid" but her ability to relate with empathy to the pain of another was non-existent.

Turkle says that this is because when we spend most of our time communicating electronically we lose our ability to relate personally and deeply with each other.

You see, in a real conversation, when a person is vulnerable with us, we have to deal with their tears and emotions in real time and by that, I mean when we are meeting with each other face to face.

A person can react with anger or lash out hurtfully via a Facebook or Twitter post, and we can ignore, unfriend or ghost them.

But when we are face to face with another person it is a very different story.

Of course, it is entirely possible to ghost or ignore someone when they are sitting directly opposite you.

You simply "zone out", choose to respond to what they are saying half-heartedly or be more intent on what you are going to say next.

M. Scott Peck once reflected on how he had done exactly this in a five minute conversation with a school friend:

During our five minutes together, I was listening to what he had to say only so that I might turn it into a clever rejoinder. I watched him only so that I might see what effect my remarks were having upon him. I had not cared a whit for my classmate.

Listening with empathy to another person requires great discipline and a willingness on the part of the listener to accept the fact that things could get messy!

And it is going to take time – undistracted time – for the person sharing to be truly heard.

While I agree with Turkle's observations about technology's impact on relationships, our reluctance to listen to each other is not a new thing.

In the past, wives often held "sparkling" one-sided conversations with the back of a newspaper.

In my family, we "talked" to each other through the TV! (This is not as crazy as it sounds. It involves talking to the other person while looking at the TV screen and your words somehow magically bounce off the screen and into their ears.)

So how can I listen with empathy?

Be prepared to sit with the person. Give them your time. They are opening their heart to you – honour that!

Don't be afraid of emotions. They may get angry or cry. It's okay - right now they need someone they trust and with whom they can be totally honest.

Get rid of all the distractions. Put the phone down. Turn off the TV. Place the newspaper to the side. Right now, the person sitting in front of you is more important than anything else.

Remember. You are not perfect - you have faults, weaknesses and hurts also - one day, you will need someone to listen to you as well.

Here's to being better listeners!

Divine empathy >>