Master Compassionate Listening

Communication is the foundation of all human interaction. Not only does it allow us to share information and knowledge with others, it serves as the basis for our relationship with them.  Effective communication can bring us together and provide a bound of unity. It plays a vital role in our successful association with significant people in both our personal and professional lives.

While there are those rare individuals who have mastered the art of communication, most of us need a bit of help to improve our skills. Compassionate listening is one of those communication skills that tend to be off our radar but serves as an extraordinary gift to others.

What is compassionate listening?
According to experts, Compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to alleviate that suffering. Compassionate Listening refers to the ability to listen to another’s grief or pain in a way that will reduce his or her feelings of sorrow.  By listening and understanding a person’s suffering in an accepting and nonjudgmental way, we can ultimately help this person begin to heal through self-reflection.

To become a compassionate listener, we must be willing to put aside any tendencies to judge or want to “fix” the person. It will require us to have a legitimate desire to understand what the person is experiencing with a sense of openness, patience, and emotional fortitude. Like most skills, it requires practice.

How can you become a compassionate listener?
To build your skills, use with these strategies within the context of a face-to-face interaction.

Be attentive: Concentrate on the other person. Look at him or her directly and maintain good eye contact. Keep in the moment and give the person your undivided attention throughout the conversation. Ignore tendencies to check your watch or cellphone or to let your mind wander.

Focus on listening: While the person is speaking, withhold any responses and questions you might have until he or she pauses.  Pay close attention to how and what the person is saying. Make sure that your posture and body language are open and inviting.

Demonstrate interest: Make the conversation about the person and his/her issues. Refrain from interjecting any opinions or anecdotes that might refocus the conversation away from the individual and on to you. This interaction is NOT about you.

Avoid judgment: Compassionate listening requires you to listen with respect and understanding. During this process, don’t assume, suggest, or argue your point of view.  Allow the person to freely express themselves without judging.

Be authentic: As you engage in the listening process, be sincere about your intentions.  The person speaking to you needs to feel confident that you are trustworthy and sincerely interested in his or her well-being. To be less than authentic will undermine the success of your interaction.

Monitor your emotions: During the listening session, keep your own feelings in check. If you find yourself losing concentration or shutting down, try rebalancing yourself by taking small, relaxing breaths.

On a regular basis, practice compassionate listening until you become comfortable with it. As your skill improves, you will readily witness the invaluable gifts that come with lending a sympathetic ear to grieving people in need of healing. Embrace your gift and touch the lives of others with an open heart and mind.

Written by: Patricia K. Flanigan, Smart Strategies for Successful Living

Patricia K. Flanigan has worked in higher education for over 28 years. She holds a doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne as well as a M.A.  in Latin American Studies and B.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before retiring and moving to Idaho in 2015, she served as the dean of online education and learning resources at a large community college in Southern California.

She currently consults in higher education, volunteers for AARP, writes for a local magazine, and serves as a Faculty Affiliate at Boise State University.  Since February 2017, she has been the founding director for Smart Strategies for Successful Living, a community-based website designed to promote quality aging.  As an educator, her focus is to inspire others to live and age well.