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Seth Eisenberg
Freedom matters

You’d risk your life for a loved one or neighbor, but what about listening?

Learning to listen with empathy can go a long way at home and in society.
Learning to listen with empathy can go a long way at home and in society. (Image: iStock Photos licensed and combined by author.)

In America, Israel and more than a few destinations in between, daily headlines scream of increasingly entrenched perspectives and positions. Many are feeling hopeless, helpless, angry, frustrated, and afraid.

Ecclesiastes wisely reminds us that the times and feelings we experience are anything but new: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

But just as the same person never steps in the same river in the same way, there are some things that are new under the sun.

One of the most meaningful in my lifetime is what we’ve learned about the value of simply being a witness to the thoughts and feelings of others.

That means that when another person tells you what they’re mad, angry, or sad about, you can listen with interest, empathy, even compassion.

Listening with empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily agree. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own perspective. It does tend to mean and demonstrate that you care about other people.

In my work, I’ve had the opportunity to hear people express anger, sadness, fear, and similar feelings many thousands of times. I’m still regularly struck by the power of an empathetic witness.

What gets in the way is often the false idea that if two people disagree, it means one of them is bad, wrong, stupid or somehow inadequate.

That’s not true.

Every one of the nearly eight billion people with whom we share the planet is unique. That includes those we wake up with each day, our closest family, friends, and also neighbors we would likely risk our lives to protect.

Many find it easier to claim they’d risk their own life to protect another person’s than they do simply listening with empathy when another person has a different perspective.

I’m no political scientist, yet I believe one of the most important things we can do for American society today, and from what I read and hear, for Israel’s too, is to become better listeners.

Here are some basic tips to practice with a loved one. Once you’re comfortable being a good listener at home, you’ll find it easier in other settings too. Before you know it, listening with empathy will become second nature.

GOOD LISTENING IS ACTIVE

Good listening is more than just waiting until you can talk or until the other person stops talking or truly says something that interests you. Good listening is doing your best to hear, understand, and help the person who is talking to fully express what they want you to know.

GOOD LISTENING IS ATTENTIVE

To listen well, you need to concentrate on what the other person is saying. Make sure you get the full message that they are sending. Don’t try to guess what they mean. Don’t try to do something else at the same time – like planning what you want to say next – you will probably miss something important.

GOOD LISTENING IS OPEN

Good listening means giving the other person the freedom to speak and giving you the freedom to learn something. To do this, you need an open mind – one that doesn’t refuse to hear certain things. After the speaker finishes, you can decide whether you agree or you don’t agree with what was said. But while the speaker is talking, you need to agree to fully listen.

GOOD LISTENING IS RESPECTFUL

Good listeners NEVER interrupt a speaker in the middle of a sentence. They only start speaking after the other person finishes a sentence and pauses. This way, they make certain that they hear everything the other person wants to say and that they don’t make the other person feel worthless or angry.

GOOD LISTENING IS CAREFUL

To be a good listener, you need to ask the speaker about anything you didn’t hear well, that isn’t clear, or that you didn’t quite understand.

When others feel heard and respected, disagreements are more likely tolerated, even negotiated. It creates a building block from which nearly anything becomes possible.

If you find this helpful, please post a comment, share, or send me a note. I’d be happy to follow-up with similar tips about Good Talking and a practical, proven relationship building tool that can make a difference at home, work and anyplace in between.

About the Author
Seth Eisenberg is President of the PAIRS Foundation, a former At-Large chair of the National Writers Union, elected labor leader, and pro-Israel activist. He is an author of Instructions for Intimacy, The Laundry List of Relationship Mishaps, Knots and Double Binds, PAIRS Essentials, Warrior to Soul Mate, PAIRS for PEERS, and the SHALOM Workshop. He can be reached via LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/setheisenberg/.
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