Exercise: How to Listen with Empathy But Keep Yourself Sane 1 of 3
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
As a trained listener, it can become overwhelming to hear about people's issues all day long. It's a learned skill that practitioners hone throughout the years; how to listen with empathy and feeling, all the while, not taking on others' emotional state. This is a skill that I have found has benefitted me throughout EVERY area of my life. Being married to an entrepreneur, my husband can go through as many as 50 highs and lows in any given day. My favorite saying about the roller coaster ride of life is, "I'm killing it! It's killing me!" We've all had days, weeks, months, maybe even years where we feel this way on a regular basis. So how can we learn to ride our own roller coaster without hopping on board someone else's ride as well?
1. One thing I do is spend a bit of time each day to identify my own frame of mind. How am I feeling that day as a whole? Am I happy, sad, frustrated, tired, energized, moody, light, dark, or just in a state of ok? Once I have assessed my own general emotional state, I acknowledge it and try to do things to either change it (if I want) or sit with it because I know that whatever mood I'm in today will likely be different tomorrow.
2. During the day, as I interact with other people and things, I make a conscious effort to listen with my head, not with my heart. Of course I will get teary if I hear something especially sad or happy, but I still maintain a bit of emotional distance for my own sanity. That may sound cold, but in reality, it's not. All people have their own "stuff". I don't need to take on their "stuff" on top of my own. But that doesn't mean I can't be there for them. In fact, I would argue, because of this skill, I can actually be there for others to a greater degree.
3. Deep breaths. . . we all know that taking a deep breath and counting to 10 is a great way to de-escalate the body and center oneself. When practicing how not to take on other people's emotional states, breathing is major!! Let's use my children for an example. I used to consider myself a bit of a master in the art of staying calm and patient. After all, I spent decades working with individuals with developmental disabilities and had to stay calm and aware at all times or else I could exacerbate an already sticky situation. I will be the first to admit, my ability to separate my own emotional state certainly has waned a bit since having my second child. This is NOT an easy skill to learn, no less master. But with everything, practice makes . . . well maybe not perfect, but certainly improvement! So each time my kids fight, whine, freak out etc., while I want to fight back, whine back or freak out with them, I take that deep breath (and sometimes count to 20 or 30!) before I respond to them.
4. Awareness: When you are aware of your own emotional state, you can learn to control it. I don't want to be angry when my kids whine, I don't want to get freaked out when something goes wrong with my husband's business, I don't want to feel frustrated when a client of mine expresses frustration with something in their life. It does no one around me any good if I mimic their state of being. So I practice. I practice regular awareness of my own emotional state. And when I feel it start to wane or go somewhere I don't want it to go, I reign myself back to me. I take deep breaths. I remember that when I stay calm, those around me are more likely to get what they need from me. I am more effective. I am in control of me.
5. So what I would love for you to take away from this is that you are in control of you. You control your mind. You control your heart. You control your reactions. Please do not think that because of the style in which this is written that I believe it is easy to accomplish. It's not. At all. Honestly, it's a lifelong journey. But it can change your life when you start to become aware of your own power to control yourself and the way you react to the people and situations you encounter on a daily basis.
So take a moment to identify your current emotional state. Sit with it and acknowledge it and embrace it. When you find yourself reacting to someone else's emotional state, ask yourself if this is the reaction you want to have, or can you just go back to feeling like you again? Become aware of how your moods change based on the people and situations you find yourself in. Decide how you want to feel and react. Take deep breaths until you feel more in control again. Separate yourself emotionally from the situation. Then respond in the way that best suits you. Chances are, this will also be a way that best suits the person you're connecting with.
Look for other blog posts on the subject of empathy:
The difference between empathy and sympathy