The Transformative Role of Empathetic Communication

5 min read
photo by the author

Source: photo by the author

What advice do adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour, ex-FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, and Buddhist expert in nonviolent communication Oren Jay Sofer share? When it comes to communication, their perspectives seem remarkably similar.

All three experts lead with the same premise: In any situation, we choose to act or speak in whatever capacity we have to understand and show empathy. This creates connection and steers what comes next. Skillful communication is the key to navigating moments with family, friends, and even people we don’t like all that much.

This advice reflects the unavoidable reality of cause and effect. Reactivity, such as shutting down or escalating, leads to more reactivity until someone is able to break the cycle. Whether you want to understand, influence, collaborate, listen, be heard, comfort, show empathy, change minds, or find compromise, possibilities rely on staying aware of our best intentions while communicating.

Strong communication supports any relationship. It smooths family ties and leads to better health care outcomes ranging from happier providers and patients to improved clinical results. Even when what you most want is to convince someone to follow your heartfelt advice, it starts with understanding what they most care about.

It may seem obvious, but under stress, we easily lose touch with our best intentions. And yet, all we control at any moment is how we relate to what’s happening. Managing our reactivity, returning to self-awareness, and understanding, therefore has both immediate and long-term implications.

  • Listen first: When possible, begin a conversation by taking the time to listen. Monitor your body language too. Aim for the experience of presence, quietly providing your full attention. As Oren Jay Sofer declares: “To listen entails a fundamental letting go of self-centeredness. We have to be willing to put down our thoughts, views, and feelings temporarily to truly listen.”
  • State where you agree: Without losing touch with your own needs, identifying where you agree creates a connection and sets the stage for collaboration. Sofer adds, “The more we understand one another, the easier it is to find solutions that work for everyone. Therefore, establish as much mutual understanding as possible before problem-solving.”
  • Reflect empathy: Aim to understand another person’s emotional experience, beliefs, and motivations, and reflect back that understanding. Chris Voss states, “The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas (you may well find them crazy). But by acknowledging the other person’s situation, you immediately convey that you are listening. Remember, you’re dealing with a person who wants to be appreciated and understood.”
  • Stay mindful to speak with intention: Observe your own emotions, motivations, and beliefs, and how they influence your words. This awareness permits you to monitor what you choose to say and how you say it. Sofer suggests that to increase the chances that you’ll get the understanding you seek, consider what it is you’d like the other person to understand before you speak. “If there is more than one point you’d like to make, break it down into chunks. Track the amount of information you’re sharing. Pause periodically to check if the other person is still with you.”
  • Allow for communication repair: Communication is rarely perfect on the first try. Without blame, remain open to clarifying yourself or apologizing. Allow others to do the same. As Lisa Damour reflects on parent-child dynamics, “If you say something you don’t mean, if you use shame or throw your power around, apologize. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the first step in the critical process of repairing relational ruptures.” Don’t worry that owning your mistakes will reveal your flaws, your child or other person already knows you’re not perfect. In fact, she can probably list your faults better than anyone.

Empathetic communication does not mean giving in. There are times when we must stand up for ourselves or someone else. Yet, naturally, reactivity and conflict lead to escalation. People instinctively respond in kind. Peaceable discussion, dispassionate limit setting, and even nonviolent resistance are more likely to lead to future peace. It’s not a naïve cliché, it’s a fact of life.

This concept applies not only to families but also to society. In September, a bipartisan group of presidential foundations released this statement: “Debate and disagreement are central features in a healthy democracy. Civility and respect in political discourse, whether in an election year or otherwise, are essential.”

Dysfunctional government communication undermines our children’s lives directly. It also teaches them an inherently flawed way of life. For the sake of our kids, then, voting for candidates (whatever their party) who model respectful communication underscores our own values for our children.

But, of course, the most direct way we guide our children is in how we ourselves communicate. Consider life with a teen. Emotions intensely come and go. If you flare up in the face of a flare-up, what happens? Tears, screaming, shutting down, or slammed doors. (The same notion applies to a salesperson or a political opponent, though probably with fewer tears and slammed doors but more bitterness and ill will.)

If you choose patience, that leaves space for a return. For talking later. For quietly saying, I know how much this matters to you even though we don’t agree. How you engage while taking a stand sets the stage for collaboration and stability. It sets a functional example for navigating conflict. And on a personal level, it establishes a healthier and supportive relationship with our children.

Notice where your communication choices have an impact both inside and outside the family. Aim to communicate with empathy even during, especially during, moments of conflict. Model fortitude and respect, even when you disagree with someone, and your children learn from watching you. As a hostage negotiator, a psychologist, and a Buddhist teacher all suggest, this is the foundation of healthy and productive communication.

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