As part of our core curriculum at Zen Life & Meditation Center (ZLMC) for increasing empathic awareness, we teach the skill set of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC is based on sound principles of good communication. You may be surprised at how powerful these principles are, and how little you actually use them in real life. So I'm going to give you 5 tips for things you can do to begin practicing these skills in your daily life right away.
1. Let Go of the Outcome When you enter into communication with someone, if you are attached to your own agenda, it's going to be hard to listen empathically to their experience. You will constantly be wanting to steer or manipulate the discussion in a direction that assures that your outcome is achieved. The discipline of mindfulness meditation can help you continue to remain in the present and open to what is unfolding.
2. Change Your Mindset from Being Right to Learning If you enter a conversation with the desire to win the argument it will color everything you do and say. You'll have very little interest in actually listening to the other person. Instead of entering the conversation with the assumption you are right, begin the conversation with a clear intention to learn what the other person has to say before you jump to any conclusions. This shift in perspective will help you open and be more receptive to the other person's experience. This is the first step in cultivating empathic awareness.
3. Listen First before Seeking to be Understood One thing you may do when we are arguing or disagreeing with someone is rehearse what you are going to say, as the other person is talking. If your own need for being heard is not being met you can become anxious to be understood. If you begin by listening first, rather than seeking to be understood, you shift the conversation towards empathic awareness. This shift will be felt by the other person, and when they feel deeply heard and understood by you, then when you do speak about your own experience, they are more likely to be open and receptive to what you have to say. Listening is powerful and healing. When we practice deeply listening with others, its surprising how this can often be reciprocated.
4. Don't Interrupt Someone when they are Speaking This requires some discipline. You have to learn to hold your tongue. Again, as you deepen your skill in listening empathically to another person, you'll find it's very helpful to not interrupt them when they are speaking. When you interrupt someone, it can be confusing for them. Sometimes when people are interrupted they have a hard time finishing their train of thought. Some people speak slower than others. If you're listening to someone, keep these things in mind. Hold your tongue. It's a good way to remind yourself to listen first before seeking to be understood.
5. Deep Listening Doesn't Mean You Agree with What You Hear In our culture there is an unexamined assumption that if you listen to another openly and empathically, you are agreeing with them. Deep listening has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing. How will you know whether you agree or disagree before you listen? So listening itself is simply a way of receiving and learning information about another person's point of view. Your discernment about whether you agree or not, comes after you have fully heard what they have to say.
These are five principles for good communication. They are all part of the NVC training that we teach as part of our curriculum at ZLMC. If you keep these simple principles in mind they will help you learn to listen more deeply and empathically to those around you. I hope you can appreciate that this kind of deep, empathic listening is not common. We really don't listen very well to others. So when you develop this skill in your daily life it will dramatically improve the quality and depth of your connection with others. If you combine these principles with a Zen-inspired lifestyle rooted in mindfulness meditation you'll find that you are developing some powerful new habits that support your remaining connected to others.
Roshi Robert Althouse