How to be an empathetic listener?


Imagine that you had the means to give every person in your life an expensive gift.

How happy and appreciative they would be!

Actually, you can give others a special gift, something they really need.

It won’t cost you a cent.

What is it?

Your attention.

Most people want attention and respond appreciatively when they receive it.

To give quality attention, however, you must be an empathetic listener.

If you are a parent or an employer or serve in any capacity in which people come to you for advice and direction, you need to listen empathetically.

If you don’t, people will detect your lack of empathy, and your credibility will suffer.

Even if you are not frequently called on for advice, you still need to listen to people empathetically, such as when a friend comes to you for comfort.

What, then, are some of the ways in which you can show yourself to be an empathetic listener?

1. Be absorbed

What is an empathetic listener?

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “empathy”: “The capacity for participation in another’s feelings or ideas.” The same dictionary defines “listen”: “To hear with thoughtful attention.” 

So an empathetic listener does more than hear what someone says.

He pays attention and shares in that one’s thoughts and feelings.

This requires being absorbed in what you are hearing, not allowing your mind to wander.

Even thinking of how you will reply detracts from listening.

Discipline yourself to stay focused on what the other person is saying.

Look directly at the person speaking to you.

If your eyes wander, you will appear uninterested.

Observe his gestures and body language.

Is he smiling or frowning?

Do his eyes reflect humor, sadness, or apprehension?

Is what he leaves unsaid significant?

Don’t worry about your reply; it will come as a by-product of your focused listening.

While listening, you will likely nod your head and use expressions of affirmation, such as ‘I see’ and ‘I understand.’ 

This can show that you are following along.

However, don’t think that head nodding and affirmations will make people think that you are listening when you really are not.

In fact, continuous rapid nodding of the head can betray impatience.

It is as if you are saying, ‘Hurry up. Get on with it. Finish.’

In any case, you need not be overly concerned about the mechanics.

Just make your listening genuine, and your responses will reflect your sincerity.

Good questions also show that you are absorbed and following along.

They show you are interested.

Ask for clarification of points that are unsaid or unclear.

Ask questions that invite the other person to elaborate and express himself further.

Don’t worry that you may interrupt occasionally, but don’t overdo it.

Getting things clear is part of the listening process.

If interrupting is not overdone, the other person will appreciate your desire to comprehend fully all that he is saying.

2. Show Understanding

This can be the hardest part, even if you truly feel for the person talking to you.

When someone distressed comes to you, do you jump in with optimistic suggestions and solutions?

Do you quickly point out that the situation is not so bad when compared with the suffering of someone else?

This might seem helpful, but it can have a negative effect.

There are a number of reasons why you might be inclined to stop listening and start solving.

You might think that your enthusiastic suggestions are just what is needed to lift the sufferer’s spirits.

Or you could feel that it is your duty to “fix” whatever is “wrong” and that if you don’t, you are not being helpful or are not “doing your job.”

An early barrage of solutions, however, usually sends out discouraging messages, such as, ‘I perceive your problem to be much simpler than you claim it is.’

Or, ‘I am more interested in my own reputation as a problem-solver than in your well-being.’ 

Or, perhaps, ‘I just don’t understand—and I don’t want to.’

Comparing a sufferer’s problem with those of others usually communicates, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself for feeling troubled when other people are suffering more than you.’

If you unwittingly send out such discouraging messages, your friend will feel that you didn't really hear him, that he isn't getting through.

He may even conclude that you think you are superior to him.

Next time, he will turn to someone else for comfort.

What if your friend is troubled unnecessarily?

For example, he may feel guilty without valid cause.

Should you hurry to tell him that so that he can start feeling good?

No, because if you have not listened to him first, your reassurances will be of little comfort.

Rather than feel relieved, he will feel that he has still not unburdened himself, that he still carries his guilt.

As 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it, “it takes two to tell the truth: one to say it and another to hear it.”

Participate in the feelings of the one confiding in you.

Acknowledge the difficulty of his problem, the depth of his distress.

Do not minimize his problem with statements like, ‘Oh, you’re just having a hard day’ or, ‘Things aren't really that bad.’

Ironically, such minimizing may even intensify his troubled feelings.

He will be frustrated because you are not taking his message seriously.

So let your responses show that you hear what is said and that you accept that this is how he feels about things for now.

Empathetic listening does not require that you agree with the person confiding in you.

You may believe that a person is unjustified in exclaiming, “I hate my job!”

But if you react with disapproval (‘You shouldn't feel that way’) or denial (‘You don’t really mean that’), he will conclude that you do not understand.

Your comments should reflect your understanding.

To the person who hates his job, you might say, ‘It must be stressful.’ Then ask for clarifying details.

Thus you are not necessarily agreeing that he should hate his job but simply acknowledging that this is how he presently feels.

You thereby give him the satisfaction of having been heard, of having fully communicated his feelings. Often, sharing the problem may lessen it.

Similarly, the person who says, “My wife is having a checkup today,” could mean, “I’m worried.”

Let your response acknowledge this.

It shows that you listened to the meaning behind his words, which is more comforting than if you ignored his meaning, denied it, or tried to adjust him by telling him that he shouldn't worry.

3. Good listeners talk too!

The art of conversation speaks of those who listen but speak very little, “thinking that it gives them an air of dignified reserve.”

This compels the other person to bear the entire burden of conversation, which is rude.

On the other hand, it is also rude, and wearying, if the person you are listening to continues to talk nonstop without allowing you to express yourself.

So, while you need to be a good listener, you may also want to let the other person know that you have something helpful to say.

What might you say?

Having respectfully listened to your friend’s expressions, should you now give advice?

If you are qualified to give it, perhaps.

If you have a solution to your friend’s problem, by all means share it with him.

Your words will carry some weight, since you invested time listening first.

If you do not have the necessary credentials to give your friend the kind of direction or help that he needs, try to put him in touch with someone who is in a position to give it.

In some cases, however, advice is neither needed nor requested.

So beware of weakening the good effect of your listening by adding a lot of words.

Your friend may simply have to endure an uncontrollable situation or take time to work through his negative feelings.

He came to you to share his trouble.

You listened.

You shared his feelings, assured him that you are concerned and that you will keep him in your thoughts.

Let him know that he is free to come to you again and that you will respect the confidential nature of his problems.

He may well need such comfort more than having you try to fix his problem.

Whether listening is accompanied by advice or not, it benefits both parties involved.

The one speaking has the satisfaction of being heard and understood.

He is comforted in knowing someone cares enough to hear him out.

The listener is rewarded too.

Others appreciate his concern.

If he gives advice, it is all the more credible because he does not speak until he has fully comprehended the situation brought to him.

It is true that empathetic listening takes time.

But what a worthwhile investment!

Indeed, by giving people your thoughtful attention, you give them a special gift.