Empathic Listening and Self-Expression for Connection

Emotional Literacy Sep 21, 2021

You’ve just arrived at the kitchen when you sense that your father isn’t in a good mood. He neither makes eye contact with you; nor does he return your good morning greeting. He turns over to your mother and says, “Will this person ever do anything with their life?”.

This is definitely not the ideal morning you’d hoped for. What do you do now? You have four options:

  1. Hear blame and internalize the blame. My father thinks I’m worthless. Why shouldn’t he? I’ve turned into a nothing.
  2. Hear blame and externalize the blame. My father thinks I’m worthless. But what has he done to support my dreams? He always complains!
  3. Connect with your own feelings and needs: When my father communicates indirectly to mother like the way he did, I feel discouraged and annoyed because in those moments I’m in need of empathy, respect, support and consideration of my choices.
  4. Connect with your father’s feelings and needs: Could my father be feeling frustrated and worried because he’d like assurance that I’m spending my time doing things that support my career?

Needless to say, #1 and #2 fuel disconnection. #3 and #4 support connection but require the mindset to understand that:

  1. Getting stuck in the ‘Who is Right Game’ isn’t helpful.
  2. Talking about feelings and needs is important.
  3. Diagnosis, blame, judgment and/or criticism are tragic expressions of unmet needs.

Once we have this understanding we further require a few vital skills:

  1. Making a clear observation: what really happened?
  2. What are the feelings involved?
  3. What needs, values and expectations created those feelings?
  4. What action(s) would help meet those needs?

Ideally, both you and your father would have the skills of Emotional Intelligence to diffuse potential misunderstanding, miscommunication and conflict. However, even if only you are skilled at this, you could focus on #3 and #4 (connection with your own and your father’s needs). When you do this, you’d have two options for a better conversation:

  1. Empathic Listening:You could take a guess of your father’s feelings and needs and ask: Father, are you frustrated and worried because you'd like assurance that I’m spending my time doing things that support my career? Your guess could be incorrect. But at least, you’ve gotten past the ‘Who is Right Game’. The conversation is now better positioned to go to a direction of connection.
  2. Self-Expression:You could express your feelings and needs honestly to your father and say: Father, when you communicate indirectly to mother like the way you did, I feel discouraged and annoyed because in those moments I’m in need of empathy, respect, support and consideration of my choices. Would you like to discuss what is it that’s bothering you too so that we can clear any misunderstandings we may be having? Again, there’s no guarantee how your father will take this response of yours. However, no matter how he reacts, you can still continue to empathize with his unmet needs. And so, even if he says, “Look at the way he is talking now!”, you could choose to make an empathic guess and ask, “Are you annoyed because you’d like me to listen to you first before focusing on I’m affected?”.

With a clear understanding of the OFNR framework, we have the superpower to transform any judgmental (and therefore disconnection inducing) message into opportunities for greater clarity and connection.

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Sagar Satyal

Sagar Satyal is co-founder at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected]

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