During a dialogue coaching call today, I examined the fields of listening within personal relationships. I guided my coachee through understanding the transition from judgmental listening to listening from outside, and then into empathic and generative listening. Each field carries a concurrent change in dialogue, where actors in a conversation move from the shallow exchanges of politeness or debate into those of inquiry and flow. My coachee explained two recent conversations with people in her private life.
Her sister-in-law represents an easygoing empathic listener committed to emergence. Their conversations are far more than cordial, plunging well below the surface. She senses an authentic desire to understand without judgment. When sharing ideas, she doesn’t suggest how things should be. Instead, she contributes to improving understandings by providing objective feedback and reflective inquiry. She moves ideas by asking, “how did that make you feel?” When her sister-in-law disputes a direction, she works to explore the underlying emotions and provide new perspectives.
On the other hand, a friend has been challenging. After a brief period of no communication, she reached out with the goal of listening. She broke the silence and faced the pain left from previously difficult conversations. She expended great energy to suspend her judgments, redirect her emotions and let go of her fears. She opened her mind, heart and will to tackle their dynamic, behavioral and social complexities, positioning her attention outside her boundaries. By summarizing and questioning her experience, I helped her identify their sources of resistance.
When we truly value a connection, we expend the energy necessary to keep that relationship reflective and generative.
They had shared a romantic relationship. After an argument when emotions erupted, she yielded to her voices of judgment and cynicism, suggesting, “You don’t want to open a door to become a doormat.” But through empathic listening, she tried to better understand his feelings. He fears an inability to act as a leader and provider. When he was laid off and fell under financial problems, their personalities collided. She fears the feeling of dependence, and values opportunities to help others. By appreciating each other’s priorities and perspectives, their conflicting fears may become less relevant.
When we truly value a connection, we expend the energy necessary to keep that relationship reflective and generative. We invest a lot of energy to constantly relate and collectively connect. Mutual respect builds safe environments, where people are comfortable placing their attention beyond themselves. It fuels empathic listening and creative conversations. When the energy invested into a relationship is low, for the simple act of conforming, or slightly surging for confrontation, emotionally challenging situations rapidly result in conversational breakdowns.