David Martin, in his book, Counselling and Therapy Skills, says that evocative empathy is the, “communicated understanding of the other person’s intended message, especially the experiential part”. That is such a loaded definition…
Empathy that evokes a response in the other needs to not only be felt by the listener, but then communicated to the other person…this makes “listening” not only hearing it, but actively expressing what you think you heard back to the person you are listening to.
This involves listening to what is said, but what a person intends to say. When a wife says, “Work was exhausting today,” as she looks at the whirlwind in the kitchen after supper, she is quite possibly not only commenting on her fatigue, but on her sense of being overwhelmed at the additional tasks yet ahead.
Then it is looking at not only the words a person says, but the total experience of how it is being said. When an adolescent son says, “Whatever”, is it said with a sparkle in his eye, disdain as he turns away, or balled fists and furrowed brow? It is looking at the the package that the words come in.
Fundamentally, it is putting yourself and your reaction aside to hear what the person is saying. It’s continuing the conversation without adding your own thoughts or opinions. It’s ensuring that you are not providing advice, being defensive, defending yourself, or trying to “up” their story with one of your own.
I teach at the university, and am having conversations with students. We’ve spent the semester learning this stuff…primarily in a therapeutic context. But, over and over, they tell me that they are realizing how often they haven’t really stopped to listen to a spouse or friend’s full experience as they “experiment” using this approach in their personal relationship. They tell stories about listening more intently, focusing on the other person’s message and feelings rather than their own…and realizing that both the listener and the “listened-to” are richer for it.
Couples in therapy often have a “turn around moment” as one suddenly feels listened to in a new way. Listening conveys caring. Listening says, “I’m approachable. I’m safe”. Listening says, “You matter to me”.
Sounds easy, right? Skeptical? Think it won’t work? Try it. Today. With someone you love. See their reaction–and let it change you.