“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (“The Little Prince”)

Why do we experience static when we try to listen to others? Understanding them becomes laborious. Multiple distractions such as prejudice, judgements, unique backgrounds, and unique social conditioning prevent the message from being heard and received. In fact, we just hear what we want to hear. Here is where the Muslim Ummah differs from its beloved Prophet (sa).

Prophet Muhammad (sa) had the fascinating gift of reaching into the hearts of others simply by listening to them intently. He could fathom unsaid words with as much clarity as he could the words uttered to him. It was not magic – it was his divine sincerity of intention and concern for the wellbeing of others. For many of us, this sounds like pleasing others, giving up our positions, acting like doormats, and so on. But truly, when we bark orders, demand explanations, express our desires, or simply chit-chat, what is on our mind? Us and our interests, period.

When our Messenger (sa) talked or listened to people, he always bore their interests in mind first. It’s the order that matters. And once the other person feels understood, he has a higher wish to understand you. That is why the Prophet (sa) was successful in his influence, his negotiations, and winning love and respect. Today, the late Steven Covey in his best seller “Seven Habits of Effective People” talks at length about the same essential habit of “seeking first to understand… then to be understood.”

We can pause a moment to step back and visualize how we may be listening to people during the course of our day:

  1. Ignoring. This is an extremely convenient and tempting solution that we opt for. It involves zero intention to listen to the other person for varied reasons. It is also made obviously known to him. It’s the way some people treat a beggar on the street.
  2. Pretend to listen. Again, the intention is not to listen but to appear to listen. This is hypocritical and very dangerous, as it misleads the other person. It’s when we nod our heads for our children while attending to our daily chores, but in reality we hear nothing.
  3. Selective listening. The intention here is to grasp what benefits oneself and block out what does not pertain to him, like a filter built for one’s own needs. It’s when we grab a phrase shot out of the mother-in-law’s mouth, imagine the rest of the message, and smack it at our spouse’s face later to plead our case.
  4. Attentive listening. The intention is to listen to the other person sincerely but not to resolve anything further. It’s like a dead end road, where people find themselves stuck and desperate. It’s how an employer usually holds conversations with his employees or subordinates regarding their issues and then shoves company policies down their throats, not resolving anything in reality.
  5. Empathic listening. Listening to get inside another person’s mind and heart is actually empathic listening. It’s trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Here the listener gets into the other person’s frame of reference. He deals with the conversation with empathy. It means to change one’s role from that of a listener to that of a translator. He invests mental effort and concentration to not only listen but restate the message to the communicator in a way that satisfies him.

“In true listening, we reach behind the words, see through them, to find the person who is being revealed. Listening is a search to find treasure of the true person, as revealed verbally and nonverbally. There is the semantic problem, of course. The words bear a different connotation for you than they do for me.” (John Powell)

To avoid the above problem, this author and psychologist advises that we rephrase what we have heard from others to check our correct understanding. In this manner, our mind and heart will receive what left their mind and heart without distortion. But this requires time. We are not willing to invest time in our initial conversations; however, we waste it later when communication breakdowns occur, and we are forced to enter into a world of battles and bruised relationships.

 

Empathic Listening – Is it Really Possible?

The Principles

  1. Realize that everyone sees the world with their own pair of glasses. One event can be interpreted very differently by two individuals, as they see it, not as the event is. And they both can be right too. We need to set our glasses aside and wear those of the others for understanding what they see that is not visible to us.
  2. Good intentions will not work if we fail to understand. One of the fundamental reasons of failure of relationships is not bad intention. It is our inability to look into the other person’s heart to understand his or her feelings. And this is not possible without listening to him or her.
  3. Learn to adjust our own expectations. Once we realize that there are gender differences, differences of past and present, and different experiences at home and at the workplace, we can also adjust our expectations. We feel more satisfied. Otherwise, we are disappointed.
  4. Never judge. When we understand, we do not judge. With prejudices and judgements, we tend to label others. Then we do not have to deal with the problem. And worse is when we continue doing it for years. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  5. Respect. Have you ever seen people yelling at the top of their lungs at each other? What they really want to say is: “Please listen to me. Understand me. Respect me.” But obviously what others can see is their disrespectful behaviour. Nobody knows the wear and tear going on inside. If we, as empathetic listeners, choose to respect, without giving in until we understand or hastily diagnosing diseases and passing judgements, the real problem will eventually surface.

The Technique

Consider the two scenarios and differences in the listening skills and language used:

Scenario 1

Marium: “Mummy, Amna was suspended from college today.”
Mummy: “What?”
Marium: “She was caught in the cafeteria storeroom, where some girls from class were smoking. Actually, it wasn’t really her fault. She was just there and not even smoking.”
Mummy: “Astaghfirullah! It serves Amna right for keeping such bad company. People always judge you by the friends you hang out with. But it seems all the good advice just goes in through one ear and comes out the other. I have told you a hundred times to stay away from such girls… I hope you weren’t there. Or were you?”
Marium: “Relax mom, I was only talking about Amna. And you are jumping all over me for no reason! I’m going to bed.”

 

Scenario 2

Marium: “Mummy, Amna was suspended from college today.”
Mummy: “Oh! You look upset.”
Marium: “I feel so bad. It wasn’t even her fault. She was talking to a few girls who were smoking in the cafeteria storeroom. They are a bunch of weirdos.”
Mummy: “Hmm. You don’t like them.”
Marium: “I sure don’t like them. Amna is a decent girl but sometimes she just goes over to chit-chat with them. It was just bad timing.”
Mummy: “You think Amna should stay away from these girls?”
Marium: “Definitely! Amna can socialize with many others. She should steer clear of them. They are trouble makers.”

 

Notice the difference in the outcome of the conversation. In the first conversation, the daughter tries to share an ill experience. The mother is so charged up and caught in her own judgements and emotions that she kills all opportunity for Marium to derive a sound judgement.

In the second situation, the mother does not evaluate, probe, advise, or interpret, even though she must have felt like adding value to what Marium was saying. Instead, the mother helped Marium clarify her own understanding of what she was saying. The mother mirrored Marium’s feelings and not her own. And because Marium didn’t have to engage in a win-lose battle, she was able to sort out the problem on her own, without her mother lecturing her. She was given the chance and space to think it out. This independence gives people confidence and courage to trust their decisions.

Stephen Covey does caution here though that the technique in itself is not empathy. It is only the tip of the iceberg. The great mass of the iceberg is the desire to truly understand, trust, and respect. That derives the technique, which can be: summarizing, reflecting back, staying silent, or even merely using facial expressions and body gestures. But it is definitely about listening and talking less. As overwhelming listeners, we tend to cut in, argue, offer instant solutions, and get emotionally hooked up. Also, we need to assess wisely what the situation calls for. Sometimes restating something or mimicking someone can be taken as an insult.

When You Should Not Just Be A Passive Listener

When you visit the doctor, it is his job to probe, in order to give a proper diagnosis. Likewise, a lawyer needs to know the minutest details for his investigation and case preparation. Here, people will want the other person to question them, as they realize that it is based on expert knowledge and required for a deep insight. When you sense that someone wants you to draw them out, you can ask such questions as:

  1. What are your deep concerns?
  2. What are your underlying needs?
  3. What are your top priorities in this situation?

The attitude and desire needs to be cultivated first. Your technique will flow out of it. But empathy is always appropriate, without any exception.

What if…?

  1. The person doesn’t want to open up? Don’t force it. Be patient. 70 – 80 % of communication is non-verbal. If you have an empathic heart, you will be able to follow the gestures.
  2. The account between the two of you is delinquent? This might need you to make some deposits into the emotional bank account first. Honest apologies and kind gestures may help.
  3. The trust level is deficient? You will have to stay longer in the empathic mode to first build that trust level for the other person to speak up freely.
  4. You’re not sure how the other person feels? Say it. Do not pretend to know, as it can mislead you and be disastrous. Focus on feelings and emotions. Sometimes people cannot express themselves very well in words. Let the person know that you are not going to agree or disagree. You will just try to understand what he or she wants you to understand. Basically, figure out.

To be a good listener, you need to have the inside-out approach. It requires a great deal of internal work.

Invocations by the listener for others’ guidance

اللَّهُمَّ اهْدِ قَلْبَهُ وَثَبِّتْ لِسَانَهُ

(O Lord! Guide his heart and strengthen his tongue.) (Ibn Majah)

Allahummaghfir zanbahu wa tahhir qalbahu wa hassin farjahu.

(Oh Lord! Forgive his sins, purify his heart and protect his private parts.) (Ahmad)

Allahummashfi qalbahu washfi saqmahu.

(Oh Lord! Cure his heart and deliver him from his disease.) (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)