Yesterday I sat in a friend’s living room and, for a short time, the conversation focused on a painful experience in my life, one I’m not in the habit of talking about very often or in any kind of detail.

After listening to this story my friend said very sincerely, “I want you to know how sorry I am that you had those experiences.”

A few weeks previous, when I had touched on this same story very briefly, she said something like, “You’re my friend and I know you deserve better than what happened so, dang it, I’m angry on your behalf!”

These statements of empathy were moments and grace and healing for me.

You see, it’s not enough to be good at storytelling and expressing yourself.

It’s just as important, if not more so, to show empathy when others tell stories, particularly stories that are painful.

In his book The Instinct to Heal, David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., describes the BATHE technique of listening.

This technique was developed by two doctors as a way to quickly get to the heart of a patient’s story in a busy doctor’s office and also show empathy at the same time.

They have found that the BATHE technique works well outside the doctor’s office in regular conversation too.

Here are the steps:

B = Background. Ask the question, “What happened to you?” Listen with little interruption but don’t let the person run on too long and get lost in the details.

A = Affect. Ask the question, “And how does that make you feel?” This might be embarrassingly obvious but you’ll be amazed at what you learn.

T = Trouble. Ask the question, “And what troubles you the most now?” This is the most effective of the questions because it helps focus the mind of the person in pain.

H = Handling. Ask the question, “And what helps you the most to handle this?” That question focuses the attention on the resources around them that can help them to cope and take action.

E = Empathy. Sincerely express the feelings you experienced as you listened to the other person. This lets the person know that you have shared their burden for a few minutes. They will feel a little less lonely and a little less daunted. Usually a few simple words are enough, like those my friend shared with me.

And you know what? When you start listening to people in this way, you also care for yourself in the process.

You’ll experience healing as a listener because you’ll gain confidence in your ability to relate to others. According to Dr. Servan-Schreiber, this confidence protects you from anxiety and depression.

In other words, listening is like a form of Prozac. Pretty cool, huh?


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