By Zoe James-Collins, CFCC Student Fellow, Fall 2020
The ability to feel the emotional weight of another person is a powerful—and often overwhelming—sensation. Learning how to transcend empathy from sensation alone into a useful social tool is imperative to optimizing relationships both within and without the legal profession.
While many lawyers harbor a natural gift for speaking, empathy in practice urges the opposite: empathetic listening. Employing empathetic listening allows people to feel heard and encourages more holistic and meaningful perspective sharing—this is especially crucial when practicing law within a therapeutic jurisprudence framework, which relies on creating and maintaining emotionally supportive relationships and eliminating shame.
How can you practice empathetic listening?
- Maintain Eye Contact: Eye contact establishes your investment in hearing the other person’s perspective and prioritizes it above anything else in the room or in your mind. It communicates your interest in listening, rather than just hearing. In instances where eye contact may not be appropriate or achievable, instead employ the other pillars of empathetic listening bulleted below.
- Physical Affirmations: It is important to be aware of your body language during conversation. Open posture and nodding your head lets the speaker know you are interested and encourages them to continue speaking. Your physical stance can help the speaker feel more comfortable stating their point.
- Verbal Affirmations: When appropriate, rephrase what the speaker is saying wording it in a manner that reflects your understanding. Your statement of affirmation can begin with a statement such as, “So what I am hearing is _____.” A statement like this shifts the burden of any discrepancies to you and diminishes defensiveness from the speaker. Checking in as appropriate ensures that you are on the same page as the speaker and can understand better what the other person is saying.
- Avoid Assumptions: Making assumptions is a quick way to lose your client’s trust in your investment in their perspective. It can be dangerous to assume; instead, asking clarifying questions allows your client to assist in your understanding and assures them that their voice and their truth are important.
These skills may not feel natural at first because lawyers tend to be problem-solvers, and are inclined to want to dive head first into issues. The more often these patient practices are employed, though, the more instinctive they will become, and the more organic and fruitful your relationships will be.
Mind Tools, Empathetic Listening Going Beyond Active Listening, https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/EmpathicListening.htm (last visited Sept. 24, 2020).