Read on for skills and techniques to be a more empathic listener.
Have you ever had a conversation with a friend or coworker and everything you said to them seems to have gone through one ear and out the other? Or maybe, you’ve tried to be vulnerable with your emotions to someone, and you just don’t feel you are properly validated or heard. It’s frustrating, right? Whether you are here to learn how to be a better empathic listener yourself or are hoping to share this article with someone who you wish would listen with more empathy, let’s learn a bit more about the importance of empathic listening and how to implement this healthy practice in our daily lives.
What Is Empathic Listening? (A Definition)
Empathic listening is a type of listening that utilizes a combination of active listening skills, a reflection of feelings, and a questioning technique combined with the interpersonal ability of empathy to understand someone better intellectually and emotionally (Gearhart & Bodie, 2011). Simply put, to be an empathic listener, it is important to show intentional care and concern toward the speaker as they express their views or feelings. Offering this support as a listener not only allows the speaker to feel validated but can help us generate a more heartfelt response. Psychologist Steven Covey says, “In empathetic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel” (Covey, 1989).
Without empathic listening, we can halt our emotional connections with others and can invalidate someone else’s feelings, even if that wasn’t our intention. Thus, empathic listening becomes crucial if we want to foster human connection, offer support for the people we surround ourselves with, and create trusting and problem-solving relationships.
How To Listen Empathetically
Here are some tips and other strategies to use to listen more empathetically:
When starting a conversation with someone, quiet your mind.
Free yourself of any distractions (e.g., phone, music playing in the background).
Take a moment of mindfulness to calm any intrusive thoughts that may hinder you from partaking in the listening experience.
Set aside time to talk with a friend, partner, family member, or coworker to chat about any issues or express any feelings.
Create a space of comfort and safety to have the conversation.
Listen with your ears and your heart.
Listen without judgment.
Avoid interrupting them or cutting off their sentences before finishing.
Use appropriate non-verbal communication to show your understanding (e.g., nodding your head).
Let the other person guide the conversation, especially if there are moments of silence or time they take to think.
Wait your turn to speak.
Once you do speak, do so with an encouraging and supportive tone.
Reflect their feelings or statements back to them to clarify or ensure you understood what they said.
Feel free to acknowledge their voice by saying things like “uh huh”.
Ask open-ended questions to understand their emotions or perspectives better.
It may be helpful not to discount how the other person is feeling, even if you would be feeling differently in the same situation.
Use kind and caring words or statements (see below for some examples).
While you listen, consider what the other person is feeling and try putting yourself in their position to understand their point of view better.
Empathic Listening Example Phrases
You may want to consider using some of the following phrases to show support and empathize when listening to someone who is showing vulnerability and opening up to you.
“Thank you for trusting me with this information” or “thank you for sharing.”
“I can relate to what you are going through.”
“I understand why you may be feeling that way.”
“I’ve been there, and I’m so sorry that you’re dealing with this situation right now.”
“That sounds frustrating/challenging/tough.”
“I didn’t even think of it that way; thank you for telling me about your point of view.”
Do you notice a pattern here? Several of these statements not only reflect how the speaker was feeling, but also validate their experience and express concern for them in a caring and sensitive way. While the above statements may not apply to every single conversation you have with someone, try using these phrases as an outline and adapt the language as necessary to your own unique situations.
Empathic Listening Questions
In addition to the phrases listed above, it may often be helpful to ask open-ended questions to help the speaker open up more or provide further context. Here are some questions you may want to consider asking as you respond:
“You seem (insert emotion here) today. Would you like to talk about it?”
“Is there anything on your mind that you want to chat about?”
“How did you feel when that happened?”
“Can you tell me more about this?”
“How is this affecting you right now?”
Based on context, there are several other questions that you may think to ask. The key here is to make the majority of your questions open-ended to avoid short responses or yes/no answers. This allows the speaker to take some more time to think about how they may be feeling and give you more context to talk about the situation.
You may have stumbled upon this article thinking, “Well, sure, I know how to listen!” And while most of us have the capacity to listen, listening with empathy is a skill that takes time to develop. The good news here is that it is never too late to learn how to incorporate empathic listening into your life. And as a gentle reminder, it’s okay if it takes a bit of time to become a better listener. The important thing is that you are actively trying to improve your skills and becoming more intentional about communication in your relationships. Hopefully, this article provided the foundation for empathic listening and ways to incorporate it into your conversations with others. We hope you continue to expand upon this knowledge as this skill only improves our human connection with others, which in turn enhances our own well-being too.
Covey, S. R. (2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon and Schuster.
Gearhart, C. C., & Bodie, G. D. (2011). Active-empathic listening as a general social skill: Evidence from bivariate and canonical correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2), 86-98.