“Many ‘active listening’ seminars are, in actuality, little more than a shallow theatrical exercise in appearing like you’re paying attention to another person. The requirements: Lean forward, make eye contact, nod, grunt, or murmur to demonstrate you’re awake and paying attention, and paraphrase something back every 30 seconds or so. As one executive I know wryly observed, many inhabitants of the local zoo could be trained to go through these motions, minus the paraphrasing.” Robert K. Cooper, co-author of Executive E.Q.
Neuroscientist Robert K. Cooper, quoted above, has extensively studied the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Psychologist John Gottman, often cited as one of our foremost marriage researchers, similarly pooh-poohs active listening. Like many therapists, he once thought it worked—he regularly recommended it to his clients. But eventually he found that it didn’t really help them.
“It’s my job to talk and yours to listen, but please, let me know if you finish before I do.” Anonymous
In an interview with Randall C. Wyatt on psychotherapy.net, Gottman explains that the concept works better in therapeutic dialogue than in real-life dialogue. The difference? In therapy, he states, “…the client is paying, the therapist isn’t paying. Usually the client is complaining about somebody else, so it’s very easy for the therapist to say: ‘Oh, that’s terrible what you have to put up with, your mother is awful, or your husband, or whatever it is. I really understand how you feel.'”
Why is it different in marriages? “(Be)cause now you’re the target, and your partner is saying: ‘You’re terrible,’ and you’re supposed to be able to empathize and be understanding. We found in our research that hardly anybody does that, even in great marriages. When somebody attacks you, you attack back…”
He adds that while empathy is important, “Real empathy comes from feeling your partner’s pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.” Just reflecting it back, therefore, isn’t the key—making a needed change in your behavior is what’s going to make the difference.