empathic listneing

Empathic Listening

A key skill to enhance our ability to communicate effectively with other and improve all our relationships
Empathic Listening (also known as Reflective Listening, Deep Listening and Active Listening) is an advanced communication skill that is often attributed to the helping professionals like psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors. Consisting of a conglomerate of micro-skills, empathic listening, when combined with Self-Awareness and other interpersonal skills (e.g., Speaking from I, Emotional Acuity, etc.) the ability to listen empathically greatly increases your ability to influence and lead others. Some of the benefits of developing your ability to listen empathically include:
  • Helps to build trust and respect
  • Enables the release of pent-up emotions
  • Reduces interpersonal tensions
  • Encourages the surfacing of information
  • Creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem-solving

Why is Empathic Listening such an important interpersonal skill?

Approximately only 7% of what we communicate to each other is communicated via that actual words we use. The tone of voice (38%), facial expressions, gestures we make, etc. (55%) all contribute to our desire to be seen and heard. ​​

Therefore, it makes sense to develop our capacity to listen to more than just the words. This entails increasing our abilities to listen for emotions, feelings, meaning making, felt-sense, intuitions, etc. as well as bringing into the conversation what might be going on inside me, as I listen to you, i.e. self-awareness, as well as increasing my ability to inquire into what might be going on for you beyond just the words you’re using. These skills can be developed when we break them down into what is known as communication micro-skills.
Empathic Listening Graph

How to practice Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening can be broken down in a series of micro-skills, each of which can be isolated and practiced individually. We can then combine these skills in a coordinated way, drawing on the most useful skill to address the moment in the conversation. This mixing and matching of micro-skills take time and practice.
Attitude, Assumptions and Biases

We often commence a conversation with an existing attitude towards the other, given our history with them, or perhaps our last interaction with them. A micro skill here is to reflect on what biases, assumptions, and attitude you might be holding towards that person which may influence how you subsequently communicate with them. This reflection can take a couple of mins prior to the next conversation. Additionally, it is useful to adopt an attitude of positive regard towards the other. Even if they are holding difference to you, we can adopt a positive attitude towards them, that they are also trying to do their best to be understood by you. 3 useful questions to ask yourself prior are:

  1. What assumptions am in bringing to this conversation?
  2. What biases might I already be holding about the conversation or the other person?
  3. Is my attitude positive, hostile or neutral? If hostile, can I adopt a more neutral stance?

This skill will enhance all our experiences, not just when communication with others. Given the abundance of information that our brain is exposed to daily, we habitually run our lives on autopilot with little attention paid to actually being present. Most people can relate to the experience of being in a meeting but not present to the actual conversation, instead being caught in another conversation, or distracted by reading emails, text messages, etc. Learning to be present is also an act of respect towards the other, i.e. that you are wanting to give them your full attention. Creating a practice that enhances your ability to be present will greatly improve your ability to listen empathically. Therefore, also check out our mindfulness tool.

Observing other than the words

This micro skill increases what you pay attention to in conversation and develops your ability to inquire into other parts for the speaker’s experience. For example, what feel is present in you and in the speaker as they talk? You inquire about their feeling by asking them “and how do you feel about that?” It is usually better to ask a question about feelings rather than making a statement as this can trigger a defensive reaction. For example, someone who is speaking angrily to you, it is better to say “Are you angry about this situation?” instead of “You are angry about this situation”

Accurately Reflecting and validating back

This micro skill can be made very simple by using the same language the speaker is using, and regularly reflecting to them the exact same words (verbatim).

For example:

: I when for a bush-walk on the weekend with my friends. We saw an eastern brown snake in the middle of the path. My friend Amy was petrified

You: Oh, you went for a bushwalk on the weekend with friends and you saw an eastern brown snake and Amy was petrified of it.

Obviously, if we used verbatim reflecting all the time, we might start sounding like a computer program, so it takes practice to be able to apply this skilfully.
We can also validate what we hear using the statement “What I heard was …” as this demonstrates that we are both listening and understanding what is being said.

Asking Inquiring questions

This skill develops our ability to ask open and inquiring questions. Its purpose is to encourage the speaker to provide more information. This enhances their feeling of being listened to. For example, carrying on from the above conversation you might inquire further:

  • Where did you go for the bushwalk?
  • Which friends did you walk with?
  • What did Amy do once she saw the snake?

All these questions elicit further information to be provided, building on information already given. A great way to practice this skill is simply to repeatedly use the question “Can you tell me more about that…”

Clarifying meaning

It is important to check our meaning making against the speakers meaning making so that we stay close to what they are trying to communicate. We do this through clarifying the meaning. For example, we might use the phrase “I just want to clarify what you mean by …” or “Do I understand this correctly, you mean ….”

Finding themes

It can be useful to raise your perspective to a higher level, or to mentally hover back from the conversation momentarily to see if you can see any themes emerging in the conversation. You could then “offer” the theme back to the speaker, holding it lightly as it may not be congruent with what they are wanting to convey. You could use a phrase such as “So if I were to summarise here, we are talking about …”

Ability to hold difference

This is a jedi-master skill in communication as so often we hold black/white thinking with respect to another’s viewpoint, i.e. I’m right and they’re wrong. If we can increase our cognitive complexity to hold both as having some validity (even if temporarily) we improve the communication. No one likes the know-it-all, so even if you do know the truth, its more useful to hold space for another and skilfully assist them to arrive at the truth in themselves, rather than you proving you’re right at their expense

Bracketing your worldview

What I mean by bracket, is to put to one side in the service of developing your empathic ability to understand another person’s perspective. This does not mean you have to abandon your viewpoint, but just to leave it to one side for the moment and to stay open and inquiring into the other’s perspective.

Bracketing your own defensiveness when challenged

This is an advanced skill which most people are unfamiliar with. It requires you to remain open and curious in the face of your viewpoint being challenged. For example, when someone says directly to you “No, you’re wrong”, a typical instinctual response is to become defensive and mobilise a defensive response. Its more helpful if you instead replied something like “Can you tell me more about why you think I’m wrong” or “I’m curious about why you believe that”. This will increase the trust the speaker has in you because you’re demonstrating to them that you’re open to their viewpoint and are not defensively reacting to their difference.

Bracketing your own ego identity (and particularly your inner expert)

Again this is a more advanced communication skill. We all have an inner operating system from which we make meaning of the world. We build our identities around being good at certain thing (identifying as an expert), and when this is being challenged directly, we are more likely to become defensive because of our identification to “being” this identity. We can interrupt our inner process with practice. For example, think of how an accountant might respond to “You got all the figures wrong in my accounting, you don’t seem to know much about my accounts”.  The accountant is likely to respond defensively. But imagine how the speaker would receive the following response from the accountant who brackets the defence of their accounting expertise and responds with - “Oh, I didn’t realise I screwed up, please let me know what’s wrong here…” By not becoming defensive and inviting more inquiry, trust is developed.

what to do after the conversation

A post conversation skill is to spend some time reflecting on your conversations. You could do this as part of your daily journaling or reflective practice and to think about where you applied or didn’t apply the above micro-skills in your conversations. These reflective questions can help you think about the conversations you had:

  • What went well in the conversation?
  • Did I give the other person the experience of being heard?
  • What (micro) skills did I practice?
  • What did I learn about myself?
  • What did I learn about the other person?
  • What skills might I need to utilise (practice) next time?
Empathic Listening requires practice but once mastered can greatly enhance your ability to communicate effectively. This skill also contributes to the effectiveness and efficiency of teams so is a great team skill to master. There are more micro-skills involved in effective empathic listening, but if you master the above set you will become a very effective communicator.