How to Improve Your Empathic Listening Skills: 7 Techniques

Empathic ListeningPeople are suffering.

Social and personal complexities have amplified anxiety and depression, pushing people to their limits.

How can we help a hurting person? Beyond basic survival, people need a sense of belonging and to feel safe, valued, and respected.

There is good news. Each of us can offer relief to a hurting person.

Author Josephine Billings stated:

“To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”

Leal, 2017, p. 32

Empathic listening allows us to step inside the speaker’s story to feel their emotions. It provides a safe place to work through complicated emotions.

What does the empathic listener get from their effort? Besides helping someone, you may be creating a legacy of compassion.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

What Is Empathic Listening? 2 Examples

Stephen R. Covey (2020, p. 277), author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, summarizes the heart of empathic listening: “Seek first to understand.” Covey calls this a deep paradigm shift, as most people force their own perspective before attempting to listen.

Covey believes empathic listening begins with the type of character trait that inspires the speaker to open up and trust the listener. Humility, for instance, is a character trait that instills trust. Covey talks about building an emotional bank account with the person before they’re willing to trust. The same concept in restorative justice is known as social capital.

Covey believes we typically listen at one of four levels:

  1. Ignoring the other person
  2. Pretending to listen
  3. Selective listening
  4. Attentive listening

Covey states there’s a fifth level of listening:

  1. Empathic listening

Empathic listening seeks to get inside the other person’s perspective and see the world the way they do. This skill requires the listener to use their eyes, ears, and heart to listen.

 

Parenting as an example

Being a parent can be an optimal opportunity for empathic listening.

Child: “I don’t like soccer anymore. The coach confuses me and the team sucks.”

The parent might typically refute the child’s assertion. But a different response might be:

Parent: “Sounds like you’re frustrated with your soccer team.”

 

Coworkers as an example

The workplace is also filled with opportunities for empathic listening. Imagine your coworker comes into your office with a complaint.

Coworker: “Hal (supervisor) is an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he gives me horrible assignments.”

Listener: “Sounds like you’re irritated with Hal and work right now.”

In both instances, the listener doesn’t negate or judge the speaker. They let the speaker know they heard what was said and captured the emotions.

 

The 4 Stages of Empathic Listening

Stages of empathic listeningTo prepare for empathic listening, Leal (2017) proposes ideas such as quieting the mind in order to focus fully on what the other is saying, listening fully and openly, and listening through the words.

According to Covey (2020), there are four stages of empathic listening, outlined below:

Stage 1: Mimicking content

This is the least effective stage of listening taught in active or reflective listening courses.

Stage 2: Rephrasing the content

This is somewhat more effective but remains limited to the verbal portion of communication.

Stage 3: Reflecting feelings

This stage includes not only what was said, but how the speaker feels about it.

Stage 4: Rephrasing content and reflecting feelings

This stage incorporates both the second and third stages of the golden nugget of communication. Covey describes this stage as giving the speaker psychological air.

Rephrasing content and reflecting feelings draws the speaker closer to the listener, reassuring them they are in a safe space. The barrier between the parties is removed for what Covey describes as soul-to-soul flow, which includes trust and vulnerability.

Leal (2017) suggests using empathic listening when the topic is crucial, meaningful, or substantial. Empathic listening is also effective when emotions are running high, when either party doesn’t feel understood, or when there is low trust in the relationship.

 

Empathic Listening vs Active Listening

In the field of communication, there are various types of listening. Some require more skill and patience than others.

 

Active listening

Active listening is identified as a way of listening instead of a type of listening. This listening method focuses entirely on what the other person is saying. The listener then confirms the content of what was heard and the feelings the speaker projects about the message (Hybels & Weaver, 2015).

Some characteristics of active listeners include good eye contact, undivided attention, and patience. The active listener’s demeanor helps the speaker feel respected (Hybels & Weaver, 2015).

 

Empathic listening

This type of listening includes the mechanics of active listening and takes the listener a step further. The empathic listener begins with the intent to immerse themselves fully in the other person and what they are experiencing.

Applying empathic listening techniques includes emptying ourselves of the need to be right and our individual autobiography, as our personal narratives may interfere with the speaker’s story (Covey, 2020).

This video by Roma Sharma provides examples of autobiographical listening and empathic listening and how to prepare to be a deep listener.

Another way to think about empathic listening is to project yourself into the other person’s life, which includes suspending your own ego and judgment (Hybels & Weaver, 2015). I have found this to be one of the most challenging aspects of being a mediator. It requires centering myself with reminders that my job is to listen and to be fully present.

In addition to supporting the speaker, the empathic listener creates intimacy by listening, identifying feelings, and allowing the speaker to find solutions. Empathic listeners know how important it is for speakers to both own and solve their own issues (Hybels & Weaver, 2015).

It’s Not About the Nail is a comical video about a speaker who cannot see her own issue. Although the listener can clearly see the problem, he learns that the conversation is about listening and validating the speaker, not fixing the issue.

 

Carl Rogers’s Take on Empathic Listening

Improve empathic listeningCarl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist, described empathy at great length.

He is careful to make it clear from the outset that being empathetic is a “complex, demanding, and strong—yet also subtle and gentle—way of being” (Rogers, 1980, p. 143).

He describes it as a multi-faceted process rather than a state where the listener is “entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it” (Rogers, 1980, p. 142). It involves a moment-to-moment sensitivity of the speaker’s feelings and temporarily living within the life of the other without judgment.

Another aspect includes being aware of unconscious feelings the speaker may have but taking care not to divulge something that may be below the speaker’s conscious level, posing a threat to them.

In addition, the listener is sensing the person’s world through fresh eyes, particularly threatening aspects, and checking in with the person about what is being sensed.

The empathic listener becomes “a confident companion to the person in his or her inner world” (Rogers, 1980, p. 142). In order to do so, the listener has put aside subjective views and values to enter into their world without the prejudices that accompany them, in essence, laying yourself aside for the time being.

Rogers believed this way of being is not for everyone. The empathic person must know themselves well and be solidly grounded enough to avoid getting lost in the other person’s strange or bizarre world.

 

How to Improve Your Empathic Listening Skills

It can be complicated to cease embedded behaviors, such as judging and evaluating. One idea is to replace judgment with curiosity. Curiosity changes perspectives, allowing us to approach the situation from a different vantage point.

Becky Harling (2017) shares her listening recommendations, including remembering the story the speaker has told and demonstrating that you value what they’ve shared. She points out that people struggle with insecurities, and advice, as opposed to empathic listening, often adds to their insecurities. She goes on to suggest the listener might verbally acknowledge their courage for sharing their challenge.

According to Michael Sorensen, author of I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships, “The truly good listeners of the world do more than just listen. They listen, seek to understand, and then validate. That third point is the secret sauce—the magic ingredient” (Sorensen, 2017, p. 18).

Validating the emotions of the speaker demands the listener’s full attention and observation. The listener must listen to the words and observe the body language.

Sorensen also suggests the listener mirror the speaker’s excitement when responding, offer micro-validations such as “really” and “that makes sense” to show they’re listening, and stop judging our own emotions.

 

7 Techniques and Tips for Counselors

Techniques for counselorsAmy Cuddy (2015), author of Presence, discusses the control we give up when we allow others to lead the conversation.

This loss of control can be scary and unpredictable. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to prepare for empathic listening.

Bento Leal (2017), author of 4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work – Anywhere!, provides the foundation and steps for empathic listening.

Included in his 12-day communication challenge to better communication are several steps that build upon one another for excellent communication skills. Each day ends with a reflection.

Leal’s approach to empathic listening is unique in that he meticulously outlines the internal perspective needed to prepare for the interaction.

 

Empathic awareness skills

  1. Recognize the inherent dignity and value in myself as well as the speaker.
  2. Instill a personal desire to want to listen to others.
  3. Think of positive qualities of the other person.

 

Empathic listening skills

  1. Transform my listening skills and quiet my mind.
  2. I will listen through the words, fully and openly.
  3. I vow not to interrupt people.
  4. Say back to the speaker what they said to me, capturing the emotion.

Leal also offers tips for empathic speaking, including organizing and clarifying thoughts prior to speaking, choosing words wisely, and expressing words with respect. Finally, he suggests speaking carefully and clearly.

 

19 Examples of Questions to Ask Your Clients

Before asking your client or the speaker questions, it is wise to be sensitive to their disposition and have a deep awareness of the context. Not all questions are appropriate in every situation.

Questions can help the listener focus and convey their narrative. The following examples can help the listener open up.

  1. “You seem upset. Do you want to talk?”
  2. “Tell me what happened.”

The listener can clarify what they heard. Ideas include:

  1. “You sound frustrated.” (‘Frustrated’ can be replaced with any emotion, such as angry, sad, or fearful.)
  2. “How do you feel about this?”
  3. “How did you react?”
  4. “When did that happen?”
  5. “How did you feel when they said that?”
  6. “What do you think they meant by that?”
  7. “In what ways does this bother you the most?”
  8. “What do you do when that happens?”
  9. “Do you know why they did that?”
  10. “Have you experienced a similar situation in the past?”
  11. “How did you handle it?”
  12. “What was it that caused you to feel that way?”
  13. “Do you know what they want from you?”

Some ideas to let the listener know you are there for them, include:

  1. “What can I do for you?”
  2. “That sounds really hard.”
  3. “How can I best support you?”
  4. “What do you need right now?”

 

Best Exercises, Activities, and Games

Empathic listening exercisesThe Listening Accurately worksheet walks the listener through foundational steps for listening practice.

The steps begin with putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and fact checking past conversations.

Step three advises the listener to give their full attention and consider if clarification is needed. The last two steps include clarifying what they’ve said and possibly having the speaker clarify what they heard you say.

Creating an Empathy Picture can be used as an exercise or game and is appropriate for any age group. This activity incorporates imagination and creativity by having participants cut out pictures from magazines or other sources and paste them onto a large sheet of paper.

Once the poster boards are ready, group members are asked to imagine who the people are and what is going on in their life, using prompts such as:

  • What decision does this person need to make today?
  • What are others telling them to do?

The 500 Years Ago worksheet is a role-play exercise that encourages the speaker to speak on the listener’s level. The role of the listener is to imagine themselves as someone from 500 years in the past.

The speaker then describes to the listener a modern object such as a laptop or cell phone for which the listener from the Middle Ages would have no reference. This role-play uses imagination and empathy for the listener.

 

Most Fascinating Books on the Topic

1. I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships – Michael S. SorensonI Hear You

This book by Michael Sorensen begins with a robust foundation for empathic listening.

His position on the success of empathic listening relies heavily on validating emotions. He posits a four-step process, which includes validating and re-validating the emotion.

Another component posited by Sorensen in I Hear You is for the listener to mirror the speaker’s energy when responding. This includes emotions such as excitement and melancholy.

Sorensen reiterates something commonly known but often forgotten about emotions, which is that they’re neither good nor bad; they’re information about a situation.

Sorensen offers the reader unique tips on learning to empathize with people, such as imagining them as a child and ceasing to judge our own emotions.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. 4 Essential Skills to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work—Anywhere! – Bento C. Leal III

4 Essential Skills to Effective Communication

This book reads like a pocket guide for learning to communicate more effectively.

Leal begins by acknowledging the uniqueness of each human being and how we must first prepare ourselves for empathic listening through recognizing our own and others’ value.

Particularly useful is his realignment formula of Pause–Reflect–Adjust–Act for various situations, such as a wandering mind. Another great reminder is that intentions precede actions; preparation prior to the conversation sets the stage for success.

In addition to tips on preparing to listen, Leal also includes tips for empathic speaking, expressing yourself when you’re upset, and encouraging others in your life through Applaud, Admire, Appreciate.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Mindful Listening is a listening exercise that achieves a couple of objectives. It uses self-regulation to set aside aspects of self that can become barriers to deep listening while encouraging participants to listen deeply.

The debrief portion of the exercise encourages participants to reflect on their experience with questions such as:

  • “Were there times you felt empathy?”
  • “If so, how did this feel in the body?”

The Create a Care Package worksheet provides experiential insight into people’s lives by challenging them to consider which objects, possessions, and people are integral in the lives of others.

Partners are asked to imagine having to leave behind all but a few items from your current life. Partners then take turns identifying the items they would take to their new life and why.

The Trading Places worksheet invites clients to view things from a variety of perspectives. This worksheet can be particularly useful for clients struggling to see eye to eye with another person, keeping them stuck in conflict.

It includes 10 steps to help develop empathy, beginning with grounding yourself in the present moment. Subsequently, clients are asked to walk through feelings involved in difficult interactions while alternating between past and present.

In addition, the worksheet encourages the client to consider and record feelings the other person might be experiencing through their interactions.

 

A Take-Home Message

Empathic listening is the embodiment of connection and a foundation for healing hurting people.

According to Elizabeth Segal, social empathy (insight into the plights and realities of others’ lives) is waning (Kilty, Hossfeld, Kelly, & Waity, 2018). If it continues to decrease, social bonds will be weakened, rendering compassion at risk.

Empathy gives compassion wings.

After my dad passed away in 2020, people told us what a great listener he was. He didn’t attempt to control the conversation. He didn’t judge or try to fix issues. He was a strong and steady presence for others.

Maya Angelou said:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Gallo, 2014

Such an indelible legacy.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

  • Covey, S. R. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.
  • Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. Little, Brown and Company.
  • Gallo, C. (2014). The Maya Angelou quote that will radically improve your business. Forbes.com. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2014/05/31/the-maya-angelou-quote-that-will-radically-improve-your-business/?sh=61ea5945118b
  • Harling, B. (2017). How to listen so people will talk. Bethany House.
  • Kilty, K. M., Hossfeld, L., Kelly, E. B., & Waity, J. (2018). Poverty and class inequality. In A. J. Trevino (Ed.), Investigating social problems (2nd ed.). Sage.
  • Hybels, S., & Weaver, R. L. (2015). Communicating effectively (11th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Leal, B. C., III (2017). 4 Essential keys to effective communication in love, life, work—anywhere! Author.
  • Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Sorensen, M. S. (2017). I hear you: The surprisingly simple skill behind extraordinary relationships. Autumn Creek Press.

About the Author

Dr. Chris Wilson is a restorative justice advocate who enjoys diverse career interests. With over twenty years of experience in the criminal justice system as an administrator, mediator, probation officer, and inmate instructor, she now enjoys organizational training, teaching college students, and writing.

Leave a Reply