How to Listen With More Empathy

3 min read
Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

Cowritten by Sukhman Rekhi and Tchiki Davis.

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 also 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. To learn more about well-being-boosting skills related to this, check out this well-being quiz.

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).
  • Listen with your ears and your heart.
  • Listen without judgment.
  • Avoid interrupting them or cutting off their sentences before finishing.
  • Use appropriate nonverbal 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.
  • Ask open-ended questions to understand their emotions or perspectives better.
  • Use kind and caring words or statements.
  • 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:

  • “I can relate to what you are going through.”
  • “I understand why you may be feeling that way.”
  • “That sounds frustrating/challenging/tough.”

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:

  • “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 gives you more context to talk about the situation.

A version of this post also appears on The Berkeley Well-Being Institute website.

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