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Empathic Listening: How To Be A Better Listener

Why reading the air can help well-being.

Key points

  • Each one of us has in inherent potential for developing greater empathy.
  • Empathy makes affiliation possible within our communities.
  • By listening to others, and ourselves, that awareness can lead to improved productivity.

Kuuki o yomu, the art of reading the air, means being able to observe, listen, and absorb the thoughts and feelings of others to be closer to them. Unlike communication that is based on expressing one’s own needs, kuuki o yomu focuses your attention on the people you are with. That focus doesn’t mean giving in to their needs or desires, nor does it mean ignoring what you feel and think. What it does mean is by reading the air—training your senses to focus laser-like on others—you are able to pick up the unspoken agenda, the context, or the situation you are in. It’s usually what isn’t said, ironically, that is most important in any relationship at work and at home.

Pragmatically, in the clearest terms, kuuki o yomu is a very precise, slow, and deliberate way of not only listening to what a person is saying but also attending to their parenthetical expressions. By parenthetical, I mean the ellipses, the unspoken, the hidden that finds its way to a point that a person who is capable of reading the air can detect them. The person who can master kuuki o yomu discovers and sees things that others less skilled don’t see or hear. That ability to observe human behavior, and then decide what it might mean, gives the discoverer certainty and appropriate authority. With the knowledge that you are observing hidden facets of communication, you can affiliate more with that other person. It is, potentially, a remarkably subtle and sophisticated form of empathy.

Kuuki o yomu involves breathing deeply as you listen, trying hard not to move a muscle, and cleansing yourself of your biased thoughts and feelings, or, at least, admitting to your prejudices and how they limit your ability to see others as they see themselves. To do this properly is to see and hear others as they exist independent of you. It is to see other human beings in ways similar to how we observe nature.

Kuuki o yomu is the offshoot of both Shintoism and Zen Buddhism: it is a form of meditative, empathic listening, and while it is secular, its spiritual foundation provides those who practice it with enormous, daily well-being. It has a profoundly calming effect.

This isn’t the same as Reading the Room, a Western phrase that is about trying to understand the general atmosphere at a meeting usually to achieve a goal. In contrast, kuuki o yomu is more akin to how functional families communicate: knowing or trying to know what a loved one is feeling or thinking as part of the intimacy cherished by both.

Kuuki o yomu is so effective as a tool for changing behavior that it is a concept being used by management companies consulting with global businesses that want to grow. One of the best known of these companies is, appropriately enough, Read the Air, and based in Tokyo, Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank lead a team of experts in building diversity, sustainability, and cross-cultural understanding.

Bridges, a graduate of the Wharton School, built her company in response to The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). She notes, “The SDGs can be a guide to businesses in how to align their operations with meaningful societal goals. I see Read the Air as a business advisory coalition to help organizations create timely, relevant, and accurate solutions to their sustainable business and operational needs, and to ensure best practices in sustainable operations for all stakeholders.”

Another leader in the field of applying kuuki o yomu to business solutions is Yoji Yamasuke, CEO of IBC, a company that specializes in global and cross-cultural management and communication. In his essential handbook, japaneseness, Yamasuke discusses the meaning and application of kuuki o yomu. “As a strategy for making their way in life, the Japanese will first try to determine what particular energies (ki) are coming into play in a situation and will then try to take appropriate action based on that understanding. Kuuki is the air: not merely a physical phenomenon; it includes all of the various energies that permeate a particular situation.”

Yamasuke runs trainings from Manila to Tulsa, helping to educate people on how to conduct business in Japan; and, in Japan, he does the same, in reverse, explaining to the Japanese how kuuki o yomu presents challenges in working with outsiders to this phenomenon.

Kuuki o yomu, as a force to improve our lives, is a stunningly untapped resource. And just as the world works hard to develop new sources of energy, so can we say that this power, in all of us, offers possibilities for human change.

Reading the air is the method by which we affiliate with people without using words precisely.

Japanese psychologist Takeo Doi, in his classic book, The Anatomy of Dependence, further adds to our appreciation of how reading air happens and its implications for achieving success and intimacy.

Rochelle Kopp, who runs cross-cultural training firm Japan Intercultural Consulting, says that while all nations have varying degrees of indirect communication, in Japan the phenomenon is more prominent in society: “In Japan, it is especially important, and you can expect more problems if you are unable to do it. It’s an important societal expectation.”

Yoko Hasegawa, a Japanese language professor at the University of California, Berkeley, quoted by the BBC, says reading the air requires diverse knowledge – cultural and historical, as well as inside knowledge of those in the dialogue. When two people, “are praising each other, it might be the case that they are arch-enemies. If you can’t read this air, you might say something that inflames the hostile relationship,” she explains. “Because my knowledge is frequently inadequate, I can’t read the air in social gatherings in the US.”

David Matsumoto, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University who specialises in cross-cultural and non-verbal communication, studies micro expressions: tiny involuntary facial tics that can give away a person’s true emotions. When, for example, a client at work says they’re happy with the job you’re doing, a very subtle lip twitch or eyebrow raise could mean they’re fudging the truth. Noticing micro-expressions, along with other non-verbal communication, is important in any interaction, no matter where you are. “Silence is one non-verbal cue. Shifting posture is a non-verbal cue. A social smile could be another cue,” says Matsumoto. “All of these are part of the non-verbal package that contributes to that contextual meaning.” Matsumoto runs Humintell, a company that provides workshops on how to get better at deciphering micro-expressions and other non-verbal signals.

Others provide such services, too; in Tokyo’s Toranomon business district, researcher Kenji Shimizu runs the Institute for Science and Being Sensitive to the Situation.

References

Doi, Takeo. The Anatomy of Dependence. New York: Kodansha, 1971.

Haas, Scott. Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance. New York; Hachette, 2020.

Yamasuke, Yoji. japaneseness. Berkeley, California, 2016.

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