How to put down the distractions and really listen.
Communication skills are the building blocks of good relationships, from interacting successfully in the workplace to connecting with our closest loved ones. What we say and how we say it is vital, but listening is one aspect of the communication puzzle that matters just as much. Not just listening to hear but listening to understand in a way that makes others feel seen and heard—a skill known as empathetic listening.
Empathic listening—or empathetic listening—is rooted in compassion that involves much more than just listening to people’s words. This powerful skill focuses on understanding the emotions and meaning behind what people say (as well as what they might not be saying)
Empathic listening is an art. It’s the art of listening to someone in such a way that they feel truly heard, deeply understood, and genuinely cared for. When you empathically listen, you’re giving someone a gift—the gift of bring seen and the gift of feeling known.
It’s all about forging connections and relating to people as individuals with unique needs, emotions, opinions, and experiences. Relationships are stronger when we feel like we are being heard and understood. It helps forge trust and create a safe space for authentic connection and understanding.
At a Glance
How often do we listen to what people say without really digging deeper to understand what they mean? Or listen only so we know when it’s our turn to talk?
Empathetic listening can open up your communication with others and forge closer connections and more meaningful relationships. Instead of listening to respond, it’s all about listening to understand.
By keeping an open mind and approaching conversations with empathy and curiosity, you can learn more about other people’s perspectives and experiences, opening up a world of deeper, more meaningful connections.
Benefits of Empathetic Listening
Empathic listening is possibly one of the most powerful experiences a person can give or receive. The concept of being truly heard gives us a deep sense that we matter as individuals.
Becoming a more empathetic listener has a number of benefits.
You’ll Understand People More
When we listen with the goal of understanding others’ perspectives, experiences, and emotions, we can develop a greater appreciation and understanding of where they are coming from and what they are trying to convey.
You’ll Find Better Ways to Resolve Conflicts
Empathetic listening helps facilitate conversations that resolve conflicts in mutually satisfying ways. Focusing on the emotions and feelings behind what people are saying adds greater nuance to what they say verbally.
You’re more likely to pick up on cues you might have otherwise missed, which can cut down on miscommunications and mixed signals.
You’ll Have Stronger Relationships
Showing empathy to others fosters greater rapport and trust. People feel comfortable sharing how they feel, creating more authentic conversations and deeper connections in personal and professional relationships.
You’ll Build Deeper Connections
Empathetic listening requires us to tune out distractions and focus on other people, a skill that can help us feel more connected with others and with the world around us.
We live in a go-go world where everything and everyone around us seems to move at a breakneck speed, hurrying from one task to the next.
All too often, when we do take a moment to pause, we end up picking up our phones to scroll or respond to some notification. It’s a cycle that keeps us busy, but also distracts us from building meaningful human connections.
Empathic listening asks us to slow down, because listening to someone, really listening to them, requires that we slow down enough to offer up our complete attention.
How Do You Show Empathetic Listening?
When you listen empathetically, you not just trying to understand the content of what is said so that you can respond. In conversations, listening with empathy can help others feel welcomed, safe, and heard. When people feel comfortable, they are more comfortable expressing themselves freely and openly.
Pay Attention to Subtle Signals
When you engage in empathetic listening, you pay attention not only to the words people say, but also to their body language, tone of voice, and subtle changes in facial expressions. Such signals can add nuance to what people are saying so that you can better interpret what they mean and how they feel.
Try to See Things From Their Point of View
Empathetic listening is all about trying to understand the other person’s perspective. This means imagining yourself in their place, walking a mile in their shoes, and feeling what they feel. Consider it your ’emotional radar’ that allows you to pick up on spoken and unspoken signals.
Recalling similar situations from your own life can help you place yourself in their shoes.
Imagine a situation you were once in, a situation that was similar to the one you’re listening to. Let yourself feel what it was like to be there, and tell yourself this is what the person you’re listening to is most likely feeling as well.
Be Present in the Moment
Don’t worry about how you will respond or what arguments you will present. Focusing on being fully present in the conversation can make for a heartfelt dialogue. Again, think about conversations you’ve had in the past—how did it make you feel when someone wasn’t listening to you or wasn’t fully engaged with a conversation that was important to you? Stay present.
Validate Their Emotion
Listen without judging what the other person says or interrupting to add your own commentary. Convey your interest and empathy through your facial expressions and body language. Use non-verbal cues such as nods, smiles, and facial expressions to show encouragement and understanding.
Reflect on What They Say
When we listen reflectively, we listen more than we respond. When we do talk, we restate what has been said or validate the speaker’s emotions.
For example, you might say something like, “So what you are saying is…” or “I can understand how that would be upsetting.” The goal is to reflect but not interject questions or opinions.
Be Patient and Respectful
Don’t try to rush the other person. Let them speak at their own pace, and recognize that it might be challenging if they are sharing something difficult.
Empathic listening does not mean we need to agree. We can hear and empathize without agreeing with someone, as agreeing with them is not always the most supportive thing to do.
Even if you don’t agree with what they are say, make sure that you avoid expressing judgment. Remember that each person’s lived experience is different from your own. Just because you haven’t experienced the same thing does not mean they haven’t.
What Are the Four Skills of Empathetic Listening?
Empathetic listening involves many different skills. Such abilities can be roughly categorized into four main components:
Active listening is an essential part of being an empathetic listener. The goal of active listening is to listen not only to the words people say but to truly understand the meaning and intentions that lie behind them.
Important aspects of active listening include being fully present, using good body language, and giving verbal cues to convey your interest.
When we listen reflectively, we paraphrase or summarize what the other person is saying to ensure we truly understand what they mean. Rather than making assumptions, we reflect back on what they’ve said to show that we are listening and confirm their meaning.
You might use phrases such as “Let me make sure I’ve got this right…” or “So what you mean is…”
Empathy is about more than showing sympathy; it involves truly tuning into someone else’s emotions and experiences and imagining yourself in their shoes. When we listen with empathy, we show people that we really get what they are saying and we genuinely care.
Our non-verbal communication plays a vital role in empathetic listening.
This listening experience is often felt more by the nonverbal expression of leaning in, showing true interest without distraction, and asking more when appropriate. “I hear you” is something so many people need to feel and hear.
Good eye contact shows interest and understanding. Welcoming posture and friendly facial expressions can help the other person feel comfortable and safe to share how they feel.
All four of these skills help foster an environment of trust, safety, support, and understanding. People feel like what they say has value and their feelings are truly being heard.
Examples of What Empathetic Listening Sounds Like
It can be helpful to consider some examples of things you might say to show support and empathy when listening to others. These phrases can be used to convey different aspects of empathetic listening.
To validate what people are feeling, you might say:
- “What you’re feeling is totally valid.”
- “It’s understandable that you would feel that way.”
- “I can see why that would be really challenging.”
- “That sounds really hard.”
To reflect on what people are saying:
- “If I understand correctly, what you are saying is that…”
- “Let me make sure I’ve got this right; what you mean is that…”
- “In other words, you’re saying that…”
To encourage them to share more, you might say:
- “I’m really interested in hearing your feelings on this.”
- “Take as long as you need; I’m here to listen.”
- “Please, let me know your thoughts on this.”
To show empathy and understanding, you might say:
- “It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot.”
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I want to understand what you’re going through.”
- “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
- “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that.”
- “I’d feel the same way if that happened to me.”
To show support, you might say:
- “You’re not alone in this; I’m here to support you.”
- “I want to support you in any way I can.”
- “We’ll get through this together.”
These types of phrases help show empathy, validate the speaker’s emotions, and create a supportive space where people feel safe sharing their thoughts and feelings. You should choose responses that are specific to the situation and the individual’s needs.
Tips for Developing Empathic Listening Skills
We can foster greater understanding and closer relationships when we listen to people with care, concern, and an open mind. Here are a few tips to strengthen your empathetic listening abilities:
Practice Letting Go of Judgments
Approach the conversation with an open mind. If you react negatively or want to interject your opinions, try to let go of those thoughts and judgments.
Of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done. We all make judgments each day. It takes effort to let go of that kind of scrutiny and accept people as they are. Practicing kindness and empathy can be a powerful antidote to feelings of judgment.
When you feel tempted to judge, try to replace it with curiosity. Instead of wondering how a person can think that way, ask yourself why they might feel that way. Getting curious about their motivations and experiences can add even more depth and nuance to your understanding
The goal of empathetic listening is to understand the other person’s perspective. If you stifle their thoughts by asserting your own, they will likely shut down and stop sharing.
Even if you don’t agree with them or if their experience is different from yours, that does not mean it is any less valid. Showing people that you care about them doesn’t require you to agree with them or approve of their actions. You just need to be willing to listen.
Try Loving-Kindness Meditation
Loving-kindness meditation is a specific form of meditation that can help foster a greater sense of connection and acceptance of others.
It’s a practice that starts by seeing yourself with complete compassion and then shifting your focus toward other people in your life.
Research has found that practicing loving-kindness meditation can help people become more forgiving of others. It also improves empathy and emotional processing in the brain.
People who engage in this type of mediation tend to be more compassionate, helpful, and empathetic. One study found it could also help decrease implicit bias against stigmatized minority groups.
While it may take some time and practice, adding loving-kindness meditation to your regular self-care routine may help make you a more empathetic listener.
To be an empathetic listener, you also need to practice being a patient listener. It can take time for someone to get to the point or put their feelings into words.
Sitting with silence and waiting for them to speak on their own terms isn’t always easy. You might be tempted to fill the silence with your own thoughts, platitudes, or attempts to solve their problems.
When you do this, the other person will feel rushed or dismissed. While it can be hard to get used to, consciously embrace those moments of silence. Let them gather their thoughts and show your encouragement in other ways, such as body language or facial expressions.
Remember that a pause doesn’t mean the conversation is over. It just means they need a moment to reflect before moving forward.
Know How to Respond
Of course, a conversation involves more than just listening. Once a person has said their piece and it’s your turn to speak, remember to reflect on what they have said. You can keep the conversation going by asking open-ended questions, encouraging them to share more, or making clarifying comments to help improve your understanding.
Once the conversation is finished, let them know how much you appreciate them sharing their thoughts with you. Remind them that you care and that you’ll be there to support them, both now and in the future. You can make the connection even stronger by planning to talk again soon.
The key, Nassar suggests, is to make sure these words come from the heart and show that you understand and care. This, he says, is what makes empathetic listening such a powerful communication tool.