Communication tends to thrive or collapse with empathy. People want to be seen, heard and acknowledged, not ignored.
What exactly are we acknowledging when we empathize?
Everything! We’re seeing the other’s pain, his passion and his whole spectrum of human experience, and we are validating that person’s experience of life – whether or not we share his perspective and whether or not we agree to what he wants from us.
On the simplest level, we are acknowledging the person’s feelings.
A still deeper acknowledgment is to recognize what it is that motivates and inspires and also deflates the person. What “makes them tick”?
This thing that motivates on the deepest level — this something precious that they cherish and care about and that matters a whole lot to them — is called meaning, and meaning is created by fulfilling values. What a person values has worlds to say about who he or she is.
To recognize a person’s values is to acknowledge who he or she is as a unique individual.
One way to reveal a person’s values is by scratching beneath the surface of her reactions to life events. Emotions, particularly anger, are one way we learn about a person’s values. Think for a minute of something that got you especially angry. What were your emotions telling you?
A person who feels a strong affinity for truth will be angered by lies and deceit. A person who feels strongly about privacy will be angry at a breach of privacy. Everyone is different.
Partners in a relationship can enhance their communication by reflecting on the emotion and then going one step further to paying attention to the value underlying that same emotion. The best way to do this is by asking why a request or concern is important to the partner. What is the deeper motivation?
“I would like you to make the kids sandwiches and send them off to school today,” she says.
“Why? Is there something special about today?” he wonders.
And then she might explain that she wants to rest some more because of an important meeting she has later today or because she didn’t sleep well last night or any number of reasons. Whatever she says will disclose information about something she values which, in the real world, has translated into a need.
Values cannot be viewed in a vacuum. When values are in conflict how will one decide what to do? Thus values are always situation-specific. It’s the clue to why this need or goal or request is important right now. If he stops short of the emotion and the need he won’t know about what matters to her. He won’t hear her voice.
How different is the question “What do you care?” — usually an expression that says “I couldn’t care less about how you feel and neither should you” — is the question “Why do you care about this? What makes this important to you? What is at stake? What is this all about for you?”
Furthermore when each partner in a relationship is listening to the other’s considerations, they will better assess priorities. The question becomes: All things considered, which value is more important right now?
Caring about a person’s values is the greatest gift you can give. What he or she values and deems important says worlds about his/her value as a person. You are what you value. Whenever you fulfill a value that is important to you in the here and now, your individual uniqueness has emerged. Listening for values affirms your partner as a value-being.
It’s a communication skill well worth developing.