Listening, Empathy, and Challenge

by Rod Smith

Incomplete thoughts re Listening, Empathy, and Challenge – as promised 

Listening to another, really listening, is evidence of love. It’s love in action. Being heard is being loved. Listening, and being heard, holds therapeutic power in itself. It stands alone. But, being heard does not necessarily lead a person to desired change. 

Change comes from being heard and being challenged and responding to the challenges. 

Empathy is identifying with another so accurately that both parties know what at least one person is experiencing. Empathy is impossible without Listening. 

It’s as if they  – Listening and Empathy –  go hand-in-hand for a long walk. Listening leads, guides, pulls, until they are strolling side-by-side. 

When I know you empathize with me, or are empathizing with me, I’m aware that you know, as much as is humanly possible, what it is like to be me. When you hear me and empathize with me I know you experience my world almost as I experience it. We are together. I am not alone. My world feels safer because you are safe and you are with me in my world and you understand. 

Empathy, too, stands alone. It, too, in itself, is powerfully therapeutic. 

Empathy in itself, too, does not necessarily lead to desired change. 

Change comes from being heard, understood, and from responding to challenge. 

Challenge – to recall our metaphor – is the third sibling to Listening and Empathy. I think of it as an older brother or sister.

Listening and Empathy are a powerful duo but Challenge can help to seal the deal. Challenge pulls them both along toward new adventures. Listening without Empathy is nothing more than an interview. Empathy without Challenge leaves me understood, accepted, warm, comforted – all good things. Empathy with Challenge gives me hope, helps me to see the possibility of greater health and the joy of seeing and embracing new options. 

There are therapeutic encounters – expensive ones – that go on week-by-week and year-after-year that reek with beautiful empathy and where the client is fully heard. 

Then, the client leaves warmed all over but, unChallenged. 

Empathy without Challenge is (somewhat) useless if it is healthy change you wish to see.

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