Increasing Empathetic Responses (Effective Listening)*

			By Nina W. Brown, Ed.D., L.P.C.

	...Two ... items are basic to empathy: being empathetic and increasing 

empathetic responses. Once some measure of both of these are in place, it 

becomes easier to respond with empathy. ...Some ...(typical) responses (to 

other people generally are) responses that:

  - Question

  - Soothe

  - Deflect

  - Distract

  - Challenge

  - Intellectualize

  - Try to "solve"

  - Become person

	While intended to show empathy or understanding, (these responses) will fall 

short of the mark. You may have increased your awareness of nonverbal behaviors 

that contribute to reduction or absence of empathy. These behaviors fall in the 

categories of not physically, emotionally, or cognitively (consciously) attending 

to the speaker. Since these behaviors carry the major portion of any message 

you send out to others, the discussion begins with them.

Nonverbal Responses

	Nonverbal communication carries the "real message," the emotional and/or 

unconscious meaning or intent. This means that you may be unaware of the message 

your body position, eyes, facial expression, and tone of voice are conveying to 

the other person. And, while the other person is reading and reacting to the real 

message on mostly and unconscious level, the verbal and conscious portion of the 

messages are in conflict, the nonverbal message takes priority. This is one of he 

primary reasons we're starting with nonverbal behavior. Begin by becoming aware 

of your:

  - Body position and orientation<

  - Facial expression

  - Arm and leg positioning

  - Eye contact

  - Voice tone

	When you are talking with someone who is important to you. Once you can tune 

in to what you're currently experiencing (and this may take some time, so be 

patient), change what you're doing so that:

  - Your body is oriented to the speaker

  - You make eye contact and sustain it to the extent that you and the other 

    person are comfortable

  - Slightly lean forward to the other person

  - Place your arms and legs in an open, relaxed position

  - Make a habit of sitting and standing directly to speaker whenever 

    possible. At least do not turn your body away from the speaker.

	Sustained eye contact can be intimidating to some and too intimate for 

others. However, maintaining eye contact conveys interest and, in some 

cases, it conveys caring. Try not to put your focus on the center of the 

person's forehead, the nose, or slightly off from the person's eyes. That 

behavior is more off-putting than looking away from the person. Practice 

until you can be comfortable maintaining eye contact throughout the 

entire conversation.

 - Lean toward the speaker. Not too much as this may make them feel you are 

   invading their space, using your body to intimidate or manipulate, or are 

   introducing too much intimacy. That would be counterproductive. Slightly 

   leaning forward is helpful in making the person feel you are interested 

   in them.


 - An open, relaxed position indicates that you're receptive, willing to listen, 

   and ready to give and receive trust. Do not cross your legs, clench your 

   fingers, fidget or make other nervous mannerisms,    jiggle objects, stroke 

   hair or other body parts, fiddle with jewelry or coins in a pocket. All of 

   these are distracting gestures that convey inattention and/or distractions.


 - Your tone of voice carries considerable information about your feelings--

   much more so than the actual words used. When working on increasing your 

   empathetic responses, pay attention to how your voice sounds and take steps 

   to soften your tone, slow the pace of your speech, and pause briefly before 


Avoid Some Common Traps

	There are some behaviors and attitudes to avoid if you want to increase your 

empathetic responding. But first, you must become aware of whether you engage 

in any of the following:

   - Interrupting the speaker

   - Finishing the speaker's thought or sentence

   - Asking questions instead of making statements

   - Turning the topic to you and your person story or concerns

   - Becoming defensive, angry, or emotionally intense

   - Telling the person what he/she should or ought to do or think

   - Challenging the speaker's feelings.

	Interrupting the speaker can be disconcerting, causing the person to 

lose their train of thought and/or leading to the belief that you are not 

interested in him/her or what he/she is trying to say. For some people, 

interruptions are considered rude and may cause them to be less forthcoming 

to you.

	Finishing the speaker's thoughts or sentences is similar to interrupting 

the speaker. It differs in that you are using your words, projections, and thoughts 

and not giving the speaker time and space to complete what they are saying.

	Asking questions can be very counterproductive, although many people think 

they're trying to show interest when asking questions. However, asking questions 

can have the opposite effect, as some people may feel attacked or assaulted when 

several questions are asked. This can be especially true when they're 

asked several questions in succession. Another disadvantage to asking questions is 

that those questions are often really rhetorical and making a statement would be 

more positive. Try making a statement every time you start to ask a question and 

notice how often you could be a more effective communicator by restricting your 

questioning behavior.

(Paragraph omitted that deals with material covered in previous chapters.) Another trap to avoid is becoming defensive or emotionally intense, which reduces or eliminates your capacity to tune in to what the other person is saying, feeling, and meaning. You become more focused and concerned about protecting and defending yourself, so immersed in your emotions that the other person's communication is easily distorted or not heard at all. This is another reason why it's so important that you learn to in to what you are feeling and accurately gauge its intensity so that your can be much more aware when your defenses and emotions are such that the speaker's message is apt to be distorted. Giving advice and/or telling the speaker what they should or ought to do is also counterproductive in most instances. This is the case even when they ask for advice, as you are not the same as the speaker nor can you fully understand their needs, desires, and circumstances. While it can be tempting to try to fix the problem, there are more constructive ways than offering advice to accomplish that objective. You may have some information that could be helpful and welcome, but telling someone they should or ought to do does not fall in that category. It's also much more constructive and helpful when interacting with children or teens (or employees if you’re a supervisor. Comment added.) to make it clear when you're giving an order. It can be confusing when your communications is disguised by using "shoulds" and "oughts." Those terms can make it appear that the other person has some small choice available. Thus, children and teens may take advantage of the small opening or be paralyzed by indecision as to what your real intent is. When you challenge someone's feelings, you are, in an indirect, disguised way, saying that the feelings are wrong or inappropriate. It is possible that the other person is overreacting, or are reacting to old parental messages instead of objective reality, and that is what's contributing to the seemingly off-target feeling. However, this is their feeling, they are entitled to the feelings, and you do not help the communication between you by challenging them. A challenge is much more likely to have an unintended result, making the other person defend, counterattack, or withdraw from the communication and relationship. * Excerpted from Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grownup's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents, Nina W. Brown, Ed.D., L.P.C., New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Oakland, CA, 2001. pp. 161-163