Milenka Bermanova on the Power of Empathetic Listening
by Israel Gomez
It can be hard to listen to other people’s opinions when they seem so far-fetched and blatantly wrong to you. However, in a presentation given during Y-Block on April 4, Milenka Bermanova, Adv. 807, and guest speaker Dr. Hema Pokharna, an expert on nonviolent communication, demonstrated the importance of empathetic listening, especially when such listening can be difficult.
Bermanova began their senior project presentation by explaining what had prompted them to research the topic in the first place. Bermanova shared a conversation they had with a friend who refused to describe himself as a feminist, and how, rather than getting caught up in an argument, Bermanova decided to take a step back and listen to his position. That is when they learned that his ex-wife had used feminism as an excuse to bully him, and so his idea of feminism came from that experience. Through patience and empathy, Bermanova was ultimately able to change his perception of feminism.
As Bermanova explained during their presentation, empathetic listening is “wholeheartedly taking in what a person has to say, giving them the benefit of the doubt and understanding where they are coming from, even if it is difficult.” Defending your beliefs against a view completely opposite can take a lot of energy that you might not want to bother using. However, Bermanova went on to state, “The only way to make progress is for at least one of the sides to let down its defensive wall, and to be receptive and empathetic to what the other has to say.”
That can be nearly impossible during a heated conversation though, so Bermanova wanted to find the ideal form of communication for sharing perspectives. What they found was, “Art is the only form of communication with the power to break down these barriers that I talked about, because art cannot be argued with.” Bermanova laid out three questions that guided their research into art’s effectiveness as a form of communication: How does one make people listen to understand rather than to respond? What about art makes it so effective in communicating? Can these qualities of art be applied to other situations in order to allow for mutual understanding and depolarization across the board?
Through their research, Bermova found that there are many factors that make us defensive against opposing opinions. For example, a group of people with the same belief can reinforce their position to such an extreme that people with opposing views automatically become the bad guys. Bermanova found the solution to this stubbornness to be that sharing experiences, rather than opinions, can incline people to listen rather than prepare for an argument. Bermanova notes, “although you cannot force people to listen to what you have to say, showing empathy to them and then sharing your experience rather than charged opinions will make it much easier for them to understand and possibly shift their perspective.”
Art can become the perfect platform for sharing your experience rather than opinion. Bermanova explains that, “It uses the medium of universal human experiences, creating the willingness to empathize rather than the impulse to put up a protective wall.” You can argue with a person, but not with a painting or written piece. Bermova also found that everyone has access to some form of art. That makes it an ideal form for sharing your experience and allowing many people to understand where your belief comes from.
To answer their final research question, Bermova said, “Whether you’re performing and painting, or talking one on one or in a large meeting, communicating creatively and empathetically always gives better results in the scope of who you can reach, and how deeply you can reach them.” Art can achieve this best, but that certainly does not mean communicating empathetically is limited to art. As long as you can make an effort to open up and understand, even barriers between people with the most opposing views can be broken.
Before switching gears into Dr. Pokharna’s lecture detailing what effective communication looks like, Milenka ended their speech by sharing their plan for an upcoming art installation based on their research. The installation will be comprised of various responses from the student body on how to listen when it is difficult, and how art has helped them communicate. Bermanova hopes that compiling student responses and artwork will “exemplify how art can be a unique form of communication and an outlet for empathy.” The installation opens Friday, May 18 from 5pm to 7pm; and if you would like to submit your artwork, you can do so by filling out the Google form linked below by May 4.