Empathic Listening

Basic Skills to Empathic Listening

The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person.

Empathy is the ability to understand clearly what other people are experiencing.

Empathic listening is understanding and relating to another’s feelings.

It is a deep level of listening driven by the value of empathy—one that involves a genuine interest in and curiosity about the experience of others.

Listening with empathy centers on the earnest attempt of the listener to experience what the speaker is experiencing or feeling and to respond to those feelings nonjudgmentally.

We cannot understand others empathically if we are judging them.

Listening nonjudgmentally does not mean we concur or condone what the other person is saying, only that we are willing to step out of ourselves long enough to see how the person views what he or she is saying.

Only through such listening can you fully understand the speaker’s meaning.

A listener’s empathy—grasping what we are trying to say and showing it—builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who hears us and cares, and thus confirms that our feelings are legitimate and recognizable.

The power of empathic listening is the power to transform relationships. When deeply felt but unexpressed feelings take shape in words that are voiced and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of shared humanness with the one who understands.

An excerpt from: The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael P. Nichols).

Steven R. Covey clarifies the nature of empathic listening:

In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. — Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The basis of empathic listening is, therefore, listening for feeling, meaning and behaviour — by sensing, intuiting and by feeling. In other words, using nonverbal communicationsOpens in new window as much as (or maybe more than) verbal communication.

It calls for careful attention to the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal cues. The listener gleans the full meaning of the speaker’s message by putting these cues together into a statement that reflects the content as well as the associated feeling.

Harper Lee further emphasizes this point:

You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. — Harper Lee,To Kill a Mockingbird

Although it might be metaphysically impossible to actually get “inside” the world of another person and experience the world as s/he does, it is possible to approximate this.

The psychologist, Carl RogersOpens in new window (1980) talked passionately about basic empathic listening and thus offers the description of empathic listening as:

It means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever that he or she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments.

Engaging in empathic listening seems rather simple.

It is simply all about getting a right understanding of what another person is thinking, feeling, experiencing, and meaning.

It involves listening actively, listening accurately, and listening for meaning. Someone who is really good at it makes it look easy, but actually it’s not, at least not in the beginning.

Empathic understanding is an important skill for life altogether, but it isn't an innate skill — it’s not something a person is born with. Therefore, it requires committed effort to strengthen and get better over time with constant practice and coaching.

Mastering this important skill will help you avert misunderstandings, strengthen and deepen everyday relationships with friends and family, co-workers and colleagues, clients or students.

The following is a brief guide to deeper listening skills and techniques

Demonstrate 100 percent attention by:

Reflect back information by:
Reflect back feelings by:

Clarify your understanding: