Trying to Listen

Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people.

“He’s your maker isn’t he?”
“Don’t use words you don’t understand.”
“You have a lot of love for him.”
“Don’t use words I don’t understand.”   -S. S. & E. N.

Without embarrassing either my sibling or progenitrix publicly, said sibling arrived to this world in an environment both bio-medically and socio-politically risky. By the time arrangements could be made for my own secure transport, my five year old self had known of an extant brother for about 24 hours, and was eagerly excited to meet the promised playmate.

Notwithstanding those 24 or so hours to prepare himself for my arrival, upon holding (carefully) the new-born bundle (in a chair), where a bullet hole graced the outer window, my cautious assessment was “I don’t think he’s ready to play yet.”

Three decades later, I still have never lost the sense that a brother requires proper care, a watchful eye, and of course copious amounts of unwavering support (disguised as wholly unsolicited advice). All this is to say that when I tell people “I have a brother.”, what with the word brother meaning so many things, I’ve found they often don’t quite understand.

It becomes difficult to hear all the emotional nuances when we listen to reply, rather than listen to understand. I find that too often, I listen from a mental space of where I am, rather than where the person I’m supposed to be listening to is. Often, they use words I don’t understand.

Thanks to a workshop Alex gave in the real world about People Styles, I’ve been practicing ways of understanding the four types of social styles. I’ve tried to adapt some of how I behave and empathise, in an effort to help the students, faculty, and staff I work with the most have an environment around them where I successfully listen to what I need to hear, rather than what I want to hear.

Hearing nuanced, delicate differences is tricky, although open ended questions help. This ability to not only understand another’s words, but to also feel their true meaning, is called active-empathic listening.

“Active-empathic listening (AEL) is proposed as the active and emotional involvement of a listener during a given interaction—an involvement that is conscious on the part of the listener but is also perceived by the speaker” (Bodie, 2011).

I think empathy can be a challenge, particularly for a logician like me, when emotions are so difficult to quantify and understand. I suppose being an introvert doesn’t help me either. A recent text conversation with a fellow introverted colleague went thusly:

2 line horror stories for introverts:

Nevertheless, I recently, willingly planned some lunches with various groups of colleagues, precisely because I thought we’d all work better if we shared some good times, food, and could relax a bit from the hustle and bustle of the almost over term and the fast-approaching busy holiday season. As we move into stressful final exams, you’ll find several folks on campus trying our best to use all these newfound, social techniques. Emotions are important, and they deserve attention. If you happen to find me (despite a brutal travel schedule that involves a SACSCOC conference and talk), I, too, will do my best to be active-empathically listening. I’ll close (since it seems essential to have words to listen to) with the question of my favourite headmaster:

“I must ask … whether there is anything you’d like to tell me[?]”

Bodie, G. D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277-295. doi:10.1080/01463373.2011.583495



Matt Wiley is a tenured, associate professor of mathematics with awards in both mathematics education and honour student engagement. He earned an assortment of degrees in computer science, business, and pure mathematics from the University of California and Texas A&M systems. He is the director of quality enhancement at Victoria College, assisting in the development and implementation of a comprehensive assessment program to enhance institutional performance outcomes. A programmer, a published author, a mathematician, and a transformational leader, Matt has always melded his passion for writing with his joy of logical problem solving and data science. From the boardroom to the classroom, he enjoys finding dynamic ways to partner with interdisciplinary and diverse teams to make complex ideas and projects understandable and solvable.

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