Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Empathetic Listening

It was the annual conference of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice in 2013. I sat there in rapt attention as Rabbi Maurice Lamm gave the opening address. His speech started out like this: “My Friends, do not tell me you have empathy. Show me you have empathy. Empathy is something you do, not something you talk about.” What a powerful statement! Carl Rogers gives us instruction through these statements on empathetic listening: “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” In Experiences in Communication, Rogers goes on to say “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Sometimes too, in a message which superficially is not very important, I hear a deep human cry that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person. So I have learned to ask myself, can I hear the sounds and sense the shape of this other person's inner world? Can I resonate to what he is saying so deeply that I sense the meanings he is afraid of, yet would like to communicate, as well as those he knows?” Are those not questions we need ask ourselves as Chaplains? There is much to be said about empathetic listening. Let’s start with the basics: Empathetic listening helps people feel heard and not alone. What is the cry of the heart that is fearful, anxious, distracted? Is it not for someone to listen with interest? with concern? with compassion? Secondly, empathetic listening involves many skills and components: relaxed yet engaged body posture; eye contact (when culturally appropriate), reassuring touch (when culturally appropriate), listening beyond or beneath the literal words said by a person to the deeper emotions, meaning, and needs. What may seem contradictory, empathetic listening may also ask you to laugh, be joyous, and not focus on illness, pain, or dying. After all, it is the patient or caregiver we are listening to. They are our focus. And the results? In this day of outcomes oriented chaplaincy we need to be clear on the benefits of empathetic listening: Fear, anxiety, despair, and even physical pain frequently diminish when the person feels heard, understood, and accepted. Personhood, self-worth, and dignity are affirmed. Feelings of isolation decrease. Persons find their own answers in the new milieu of affirmation. Ah, the worth of the hospice Chaplain! Amazing ministry it is!

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