Great moments in conversation

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I’ve been working on the transcript of a leader in an interview talking about the real levers of communication. The topic that struck me from the transcript is her discussion of the phenomenon of empathy, and the distinction between empathy and sympathy.

It had me recall one of the truly great conversations I’ve experienced which was all about empathy.

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It was a few years ago when I was participating in a leadership course. I was on a lunch break with others from the course, and we were at Darling Harbour in Sydney. I sat across from a man called Alex whom I had met a few hours before. We were eating noodles.

At the time, I was influenced by a story I’d told myself about my career and what I felt was a failure to capitalise on my skills and experience.

I found myself telling Alex about it. Alex was silent, continuing on with eating his noodles. Every few minutes when I reached the end of a particular work episode, he’d ask, “And then what happened?”  I’d tell of some other employer, and at the end, Alex would ask again, “And then what happened?”

We went on that way for what seemed a long time. After a while, I started to experience him and his wonderful listening. I realised he was there for me, listening closely and with disinterest to what I said. He offered no comment, no sympathy or emotion. He simply said, “And then what?”

At the end of our lunch, I realised I’d been in the presence of a master communicator. And he hadn’t said more than 30 words in an hour.

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Image: by Cerise Doucede

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21 thoughts on “Great moments in conversation

  1. The art of listening to establish connection is much underappreciated and rarely used. It’s hard. We always want to ump in with either our own experiences to “prove” we can empathize” or we want to offer solutions. To just sit there and listen actively is a talent that lets the person arrive to their own “ah ha!” moments (or not) on their own, with only the gently prompting of the listener to say, “okay, go deeper now.”

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    • Excellent point about “proving” we can empathise. It’s more of the wanting to be seen to be “good”, “perfect”, “caring”, “spiritually aware”, etc; instead of being there for the person, we’re busy burnishing our images. And it has nothing to do with what Alex provided me that day.

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  2. Love the picture! How often have I heard my friend say, after telling her husband how she feels, “I don’t want him to look for a solution. I just want him to listen!”

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    • Oh yes, that old chestnut. We’ve all been there, right?

      Your friend would very likely baulk at the suggestion I’m going to make, and yet I can guarantee it will apply. If I were speaking to her I’d ask her to consider she does something similar to her husband; there’ll be some way she is when speaking to her husband that is communicating she wants to “fix” him.

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  3. And that too is where it is at in the halls of social media . . . I like to call it ‘Social Listening’. You can learn so much if you settle in, ask a few relevant questions and then wait for the answers without interruption. A real skill! Thanks for sharing!

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    • Wow! I’ve never considered applying the principle to social media. That’s radical in a realm where normally noise/posting/activity equals … what? I’m tempted to say “life”. I’ll settle for “presence” or “importance”. Thanks for the great new thought, Damien. I’m going to dwell in it a while.

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  4. Listening is one of the world’s greatest Arts. Plus we come away with the certainty that this person was surely one of the most interesting persons we had ever talked to! And he may not have said a word. I must learn to listen.

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    • Kayti, Alex is up there in my pantheon of great people I have met in my life, based on that one conversation. After lunch, I saw him across the room every so often for the rest of the day, and since that day I have never come across him again.

      He gave me a great gift, and I can say it was that day that I started to give up the melodrama of my career “story”.

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      • When I was in the conversation with Alex how I felt was that I was being seen, really seen as another person over there, with my own concerns and hopes and so on. I experienced myself as I am, with no evaluation or opinion such as fascinating or interesting or boring, etc.

        I experienced myself being listened by another person. I listened to myself being listened.

        Another way to say it is that the experience was as if Alex was telling me through his listening, “I am here and I will be here while you tell me who you are, and I will be the space in which you are free to be every way you are and every way you are not.”

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  5. Fantastic!
    How often do we have conversations where instead of listening, participants are thinking of a better story, to out-do one another or more concerned on how to express their idea rather than listen?
    Thanks for sharing. X

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  6. Sorry for the delay, but as the old cliche goes, better late than never, I hope. This reminds me of being told early in life, that a major reason for failing to remember someone’s name is that one is so busy trying to impress the other with their presence they can’t hear anything but their own thoughts. JJ

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