From the VetPartners Experts: Listening with Empathy

Sep 27, 2019 at 3:06 pm
Carolyn Shadle

Can communication skills be learned?  I had a woman in a class I once taught on the subject of listening and dialogue who said, “It’s just not me! I’m a yeller. I can’t imagine saying nothing, being quiet!”

Well, it’s true that some people don’t want to learn a new “script.” They have picked up patterns from parents, teachers, and who-knows-who, and they want to keep those patterns.

But, those who find that their patterns create barriers in their relationships, or who want to learn ways to be more effective in their interpersonal communication, CAN learn.

We have two pioneers in communication to thank. One is Dr. Carl Rogers, who developed person-centered psychotherapy. The other is his student, Dr. Thomas Gordon, who took Dr. Roger’s therapy approach and made it available to folks who need to learn communication, but not in a therapeutic setting.

Dr. Gordon said that we can use these same skills at home with family or in the workplace with clients and colleagues. One of his skills—active listening—is particularly useful in veterinary practice. Your entire team can learn it in four steps:

Step #1: Be silent

So simple, yet so difficult!  Try it. See if you can say nothing when someone expresses a problem or concern to you. I don’t mean you should ignore the person. Maintain good eye contact. Sit or stand with the person—maybe even leaning toward this person. In non-verbal ways you are saying, “I’m listening.”

Step #2: Encourage

Continuing to refrain from telling your story or solving the person’s problem, you can say a word or two that will encourage your colleague or client to continue. Say something like, “Say more,” or “Tell me about it.” Once you’ve opened the door and gotten out of the way, you’ll be amazed at what this person will tell you. There’s a treasure trove of things to learn. You’ve given this person a rare opportunity to talk uninterrupted. David Augsburger says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Let it go and see what he or she says.

Step #3: Parrot or paraphrase

You’re probably anxious to say something at this point, but see if you can keep the focus on the other person. Parrot word-for-word what the person has said. It seems monotonous, but you’ll be amazed to see that your clients or colleagues are so pleased to be able to tell their story, they won’t even notice that you are just parroting! OK, if that’s too stiff for you, try paraphrasing. In either case, you have to keep your mind on what the other person is saying (instead of forming your reply). The nice thing about the paraphrase is that it gives you a chance to check to see if you’ve gotten the gist of the message. If not, your client or colleague can correct you: “No, that’s not exactly what I was trying to say.” Let him or her continue. The object is to encourage the other person to tell his or her story.

Step #4: Actively listen or listen reflectively

Dr. Carl Rogers coined the term “active listening.” He meant that as we listen, we are “actively” engaged, concentrating and understanding what we are hearing. In fact, we are listening for both words and feelings.

Now it’s getting difficult.  It’s difficult enough to stay quiet and listen without interrupting.  It’s even harder to listen for feelings. People often have feelings about what they are talking about but don’t identify the feeling. For example, Mrs. Jorge said that Rusty is having trouble walking up the stairs. She doesn’t say, “I’m worried,” or “I’m confused.” It’s your job, as the listener, to watch her body language and attend to the tone of her voice and make a guess.

Then, you have the opportunity to reflect back what you hear—both words and feelings. You are holding up a figurative mirror, so Mrs. Jorge can “see” what she is expressing. You might respond, as if holding up a mirror, and say, “Mrs. Jorge. I hear you. I hear that you’re a bit worried.” And, you could add, “Am I right?”

The ball is still in her court.  It’s her turn to respond to affirm or deny your observation. “Yes, I’m really worried.  Rusty seemed just fine last week but all of a sudden he’s not moving well.” Or, “No, I’m not concerned. I know senior dogs begin to slow down.”

Sometimes you’ll get a surprise. Mrs. Jorge might say, “Well, you know, when we went camping last weekend, the stove fell on Rusty’s leg when my husband was lifting it into the truck. I wonder if that is causing him pain.”

A new insight! A new piece of information that might be useful. And, the client is still doing the talking—and the thinking—and maybe identifying the root of the problem, maybe leading you to an analysis. Eventually, Mrs. Jorge wants the wisdom and experience of her doctor. Are tests called for?  Is there a recommendation for treatment?  The time comes when it’s the doctor’s turn to talk. By that time, Mrs. Jorge feels heard.  She understands that her concern is respected and understood. She’s feeling trusted. She is probably now more ready to hear what you have to say.

Drs. Rogers and Gordon have given us a skill that is powerful. It’s even magic in a way that opens doors. They call it empathy. It’s so simple, but so difficult. The important thing to remember is that it can be learned, and we have a lifetime to practice.


Read more useful articles from the VetPartners Experts on the VetPartners blog.

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Carolyn C. Shadle, PhD, is the director of Interpersonal Communication Services, Inc., which assists individuals and organizations in improving their interpersonal relations. Those in the veterinary profession know her as the co-author of "Communication Case Studies: Building Interpersonal Skills in the Veterinary Practice," published by the American Animal Hospital Association, and by her presentations at regional and national veterinary conferences. She holds a PhD in organizational and interpersonal communication.

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