Empathic listening is a special listening technique that builds rapport between people. It’s a highly successful therapeutic strategy, supported by strong research that has demonstrated its effectiveness.
Counselors have practiced empathic listening for years, but it’s recently been growing larger into a more mainstream approach in both personal and professional areas. Empathic listening is a valuable skill to have in the workplace, and is incredibly useful for interpersonal relationships.
If you want to know more about what it can mean for you, then please keep reading.
What is Empathic Listening?
Summary: Empathic listening is a way of listening that involves trying to understand the other person’s perspective and feelings. It’s about being interested in understanding what the other person is saying and feeling, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
Empathic listening is about considering how the other person is feeling.
Too often, we are more concerned with waiting for a pause in the conversation so we can get our own point across.
This means that we do not listen properly to what the other person is saying.
Empathic listening requires you to listen more than speak.
This helps the listener to understand the situation from the speaker’s perspective, and is key to the success of the empathic listening process.
For more on the different types of listening, see this article.
Examples of Empathic Listening
Here is a scenario of empathic listening, taken from an example of a student seeking counseling because they are having trouble dealing with their tutor:
Student (speaker): “All Mark does is hurl a volley of criticisms at me for an hour and a half every time I have a music lesson with him.”
Counselor (listener): “That must be incredibly frustrating for you, especially at exam time.”
Here, the counselor has listened to what the student has said, and has given them space to express themselves.
They then show that they understand and are attentive to how the student is feeling.
In this second scenario, John is arguing with his girlfriend Robin about whether or not to see her parents this weekend.
John: I don’t want to see your parents this weekend.
Robin: Why not?
John: Because they always criticize me and make me feel uncomfortable.
Robin: That’s not true! They just want what’s best for us.
John: Fine, you go then. I’ll stay home by myself.
Robin: John, please try to understand my perspective. My parents are really important to me and I want them to meet you.
John: Okay, I can see how that would be important to you. Let’s see if we can find a compromise then.
By acknowledging what his girlfriend is saying and trying to see things from her perspective, John is engaging in empathetic listening.
He is trying to understand her feelings, even if he doesn’t agree with them.
This can help de-escalate the situation and lead to a more productive conversation.
Empathic Listening vs Active Listening
Active listening is a method of listening closely to what the other person is saying. Then the listener restates what the speaker has told them.
Throughout the process, the listener gives verbal and non-verbal cues to show that they are paying attention. Empathic listening does this too, but it is more than simply a tool or method of listening.
The difference is that in empathic listening, the listener seeks to put themselves into the other person’s shoes and actually affirm and validate what’s being said.
Active listeners repeat back what the speaker has said as part of the process but empathic listeners make sure that they have understood the emotion behind what was said as well.
While active listening is often used to resolve an issue, empathic listening validates the speaker and how they feel. It is person-based, rather than situation-based.
Continuing the above example of a student who is unhappy with their music tutor, here is an example of active listening compared to an example of empathic listening:
“So, I understand that you are not happy with your tutor and that you might like to request a different tutor?”
“I can hear the frustration in your voice. Would you like to tell me more about how you feel?”
Why Should You Practice Empathic Listening?
Empathic listening builds the relationship, rapport, and trust. This is a reciprocal process, because it is beneficial for both the speaker and the listener
Empathic listening does the following:
- Makes you more sensitive to people’s feelings, and also more in tune with your own behavior and how you appear to others.
- Helps to de-escalate conflict as it arises.
- Involves really listening to the other person rather than just thinking about what you want to say.
How to Improve Your Empathic Listening Skills: Tips and Daily Practices
- Be Non-Judgmental
This is crucial. Even if you don’t like what the other person is saying, you need to recognise their need to say it.
If you voice any judgment or appear critical, this will affect how that person relates to you.
They may not feel that you have really listened to what they are saying.
- Give Undivided Attention
This is not a time to be checking your phone or glancing at your computer screen!
If you show that you are fully present in the moment, the other person is more likely to tell you what is on their mind.
- Listen Carefully
This involves listening to what the speaker is saying and also how they are saying it.
To do this, your own mind needs to be in a quiet space and receptive to what they’re saying.
- Show That You Are Listening
There are little things you can say to show that you are listening, and which also encourage the speaker to keep talking.
Pay attention also to your non-verbal cues.
Saying things like “I can see that you are upset,” show that you have heard what they’re saying, and the effect that the situation they’re discussing is having on them.
- Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
It’s important to give the other person space to gather their thoughts, and this may not happen if you try to fill any gaps in the conversation.
If the other person wants to know what you think, then wait for them to ask you.
Restate what the speaker has said.
This shows you’re listening, and is also a chance to check that you have heard them correctly.
The way that you paraphrase what they have said can also help to clarify the main points.
- Follow Up
Checking in with the other person at a later point to see how they are doing not only is courteous, but it shows that you care.
Characteristics of an Empathic Listener
Empathic listeners have the following qualities:
You will be mentally present. To do this, it is important to make sure that you are not interrupted and that you give the speaker your full attention.
This involves building a connection with the speaker. Even if you do not share the same experience, you can still show that you understand what they are saying.
Can Be Trusted
This is important, because the speaker has chosen to confide in you, and you need to reciprocate and maintain their trust.
You can demonstrate this by telling them that you will keep what they say in confidence.
Give the speaker space and time to articulate their feelings. Do not rush them or try to fill in words for them.
The Bottom Line
Empathic listening had its origins in the active listening method, but it can be seen as a development or refinement of active listening.
Empathic listening affirms and validates the perspective of the speaker, and helps you to build a stronger relationship with them.
It’s important to make the speaker feel heard, and show you can be trusted by being non-judgmental and keeping your conversations confidential.
It differs from active listening, in that it’s more focussed on the speaker and how they feel, rather than solution-based for the particular problem that they’re discussing.
The reason it works so well is that when a person is in a state of emotional distress, we need to recognise their feelings, and not just their words!
Thanks for reading!
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Sources used in this article:
- Myers, S. (2000). Empathic Listening: Reports on the Experience of being Heard. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.
- Rekhi, S. (2022) Empathic Listening: Definition, Examples, & Skills. Berkeley Well-Being Institute.