Empathic Listening: 8 Strategies For Compassionate Communication



One of the most valuable personal growth skills we can learn is empathic listening.

It's a skill that not only serves others, but also one that stretches us to become more loving, compassionate, and patient people. It's an important skill to master both for your personal and professional interactions.

Maybe you're a person others naturally seek out in order to share their problems or frustrations. Or maybe you'd like to help someone close to you who has a dilemma and doesn't know what to do. Empathic listening affords tremendous therapeutic value for someone struggling with a problem, as it allows them to solve their own difficulties in the company of a caring listener.

As the speaker hears himself talk, he gains more clarity about his problem and becomes better equipped to find a resolution. When someone feels heard, an emotional burden is lifted, and they feel less stressed and confused. As an empathic listener, you empower the speaker to greater self-esteem and self-awareness simply through your willingness to hear them.

Empathic listening is not an easy skill to master, mainly because most of us (myself included) would rather talk than listen. It's more difficult than basic listening, because empathic listening is often required when the speaker is in pain, angry or upset.

Says mediation expert and author, Gregorio Billikopf, “Empathic listening requires that we accompany a person in her moment of sadness, anguish, self-discovery, challenge (or even great joy!).”

 

Active listening isn't part of a conversation in the traditional sense. There's no give and take, sharing dialogue, or competing to talk. With empathic listening, it's all about the other person and what they are trying to communicate — with their words, with the words left unspoken, and with their emotions.

As an empathic listener, you must be willing to do the following:

  • Allow the other person to dominate the conversation and determine the topic discussed;
  • Remain completely attentive to what the other person is saying;
  • Avoid interrupting, even when you have something important to add;
  • Ask open-ended questions that invite more from the speaker;
  • Avoid coming to premature conclusions or offering solutions;
  • Reflect back to the speaker what you heard them say.

In addition to these, the most important skill you can offer is empathy. This requires a willingness to put yourself in the shoes of the other person so they feel heard in a non-judgmental way. Empathy is the grace note of empathic listening, as it allows the speaker to feel safe, acknowledged, and valued.

 

As a personal coach, I was trained to use empathic or active listening with my clients. Even when I can see what I think is the best course of action for a client, my role is to facilitate their awareness and help them reach their own solutions. It is much harder than it might appear.

Most of us in the helping professions want to help. We want to give people solutions and tell them what we think will make them happier, more successful, more confident. This is usually done from a sincere desire to improve their lives, but truthfully it's a knee-jerk reaction because, as a culture, we are so solution-oriented. We grow impatient and agitated with too much discourse and too little resolution. This has happened to me many times in client interactions. I am still learning the art of empathic listening.

Here are 8 strategies for practicing empathic listening:

1. Take the time.

Active, empathic listening requires time. The speaker needs to feel they have all the time in the world to release the flood of feelings and worries they have bottled up inside. Only when they release this backlog of emotion are they finally able to have clarity and the ability to reach conclusions.

It's easy to lose patience with a speaker who is processing his or her feelings and articulating them through the fog of emotion or confusion. You can't rush the speaker through this process or expect them to accept your quick solution. Patience is imperative if you truly want to help someone.

2. Offer empathy, not sympathy.

Sometimes we disguise empathic listening with words of sympathy. Perhaps we have experienced a similar situation, so we share it to let the speaker know we understand. To the speaker trying to process difficult emotions, it can feel like you're stealing their thunder or deflecting attention to yourself.

True empathic listenings requires you leave your stories and experiences at the door. You don't need to share them for the speaker to know you understand what she is saying. Empathy says, “I get you,” rather than “I get you because I've had it even worse.”

3. Pay attention to body language.

Your entire demeanor needs to let the speaker know you are fully present. Turn off your phone so you aren't tempted to look at it. Try not to shift your eyes to pay attention to others around you. Keep an open, accepting posture with your arms and legs uncrossed.

Lean in as the other person is speaking and look them in the eye on occasion (but not constantly). Try not to fidget or shift around to show impatience or irritation.

4. Refrain from solutions.

As much as you might want to jump in and save the day with the perfect solution, don't do it. Just listen, nod, make small comments that show you've heard what was said. But don't interrupt the process the speaker is going through as they make their way to a solution themselves.

You will generally find that if you wait, the other person will come to the same conclusion. If they ask you for a solution directly, don't offer it right away. Ask the speaker what they would suggest to you if the roles were reversed. Always try to give the power back to the other person.

5. Use open-ended, empathic, or dangling questions.

Use thoughtful, open-ended questions (that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer) to invite deeper thought and consideration from the speaker. You might ask, “How did you feel about that?” 0r “What do you think the best next step might be?”

You can also ask empathic questions that relate to the speaker's emotional state. You might ask, “What were you feeling when that happened?” You might notice the speaker looks sad (or angry or fearful), and you can say, “Your expression looks sad. What's behind that?”

 

Try not to use leading questions with the intention of directing the speaker to your solution. Your goal is to help them gain more clarify and self-awareness. One way to do this is with a dangling question. This kind of question is an incomplete question like, “And if you had to do it again, you might . . .” It leaves things hanging without an answer, so the speaker can determine the direction of the conversation.

6. Ask for more.

Often a speaker will offer a crumb of information, and you can tell it's just the tip of the iceberg. You know or suspect there's more just below the surface, and all they need is a nudge to bring it forth. Even if you don't suspect there's more, there usually is, so it's always worth asking.

A question as simple as, “Is there more?” can unleash more of the story or the emotions behind the story. You can ask this several times (maybe slightly rephrased) until it's clear the speaker has nothing more to add on the topic.

7. Repeat a phrase or word.

When the speaker is sharing powerful information, they may conclude with a sentence or statement that expresses their pain, worry, or frustration. For example, the speaker might tell a story about being betrayed by a friend and conclude with the statement, “I am so mad, I never want to speak to her again.” You can repeat, “You are so mad, you just don't want to speak to her.” Or you can just say, “You're really mad.”

This lets the speaker know you are tracking with her and gives her a cue to add more or clarify her statement. When you repeat the word or phrase, try to imitate the same tone of voice the speaker used. Don't repeat it as a question or with any judgement.

8. Allow for silences.

Long silences can be uncomfortable, but resist the urge to fill the silence with your suggestions or remarks. Allow the speaker to use the silence to process his or her thoughts and then to break the silence when they are ready to speak.

When you give them this space without interrupting them, you are letting them know you're there for them and willing to allow them the time they need to gain clarity. When a speaker realizes you aren't going to interrupt them, they are free to slow down and process more internally, which is necessary for analytical thinking.

You might find these silences and slower-paced talking difficult to handle. But it is truly a gift to just be present and allow the speaker the freedom to reflective and articulate at his or her own pace.

Is there a time to offer challenges or suggestions?

When you have been the empathic listener and spent a good amount of time allowing the speaker to vent and process, the speaker will likely come to some conclusion or solution for themselves. Or maybe they will still be confused but feel greatly relieved and have more clarity than they did previously.

Once the emotion is drained and the words spoken and heard, then it may be appropriate for you to offer suggestions or challenge something you feel needs to be reconsidered. Always ask the speaker if they want your input before you offer your words. At this point, they should have trust in you and recognize you aren't passing judgement on them.

What has been your experience with empathic listening, either as the speaker or the listener? Do you think you have the skills to be a good empathic listener? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 3 comments
  • Susan Mary Malone

    I love this post, Barrie. In today’s world of instant social-media soundbites, active listening can sure get lost. But what great tips. I especially love “Long silences can be uncomfortable, but resist the urge to fill the silence with your suggestions or remarks.” That’s one I’m still working on. Especially as it often seems that the one talking stops to hear advice. I can really work with waiting on her to ask before jumping in!
    Thank You!

    Reply
  • Murigi Wainaina

    Hello Barrie,

    That is yet another great post you have here. I have first hand experience with a number of points you raise here. Personally I have been fighting the urge to always give my own suggestions or to narrate my own story to show the speaker that I ‘understand’ what they are going through. Needless to say the speaker would feel rushed and may bottle-up again. My wife has been the main victim of this ‘helpfulness’ of mine. On the other hand, she has been my main helper in overcoming this habit. Whenever she feels that I am ‘taking over’ she would point out that she’s the one in need of speaking and then I would really listen to her.

    In my clinical medicine practice, I have seen many patients go home very happy and feeling ‘cured’ by just listening to them. This has happened tens of times with no need to put them on any medicines. Although as I have said already, I am not an expert in empathic listening, just applying some shades of it have gone a long way in helping my patients cope better with their troubled lives.

    Well, this is a post that many more people should hear about – I have got to share it.

    Murigi

    Reply
      Barrie Davenport

      Hi Murigi,
      Thank you so much for sharing this honest story. I’ve been guilty of this as well. Sometimes people don’t want our help — they just want our presence to bear witness to their words. It can be very healing as you mention.

      Reply
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