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5 Ways to Listen with Empathy

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” – Rachel Naomi Remen

Being a good listener is not easy despite our good intentions.

Even if we say, “I’m a good listener! I sit quietly while people are talking before I say anything.”,…listening and sitting in silence are not the same thing at all.

Here are 3 blocks to listening that are common. See if you identify with any (we all do some of these sometimes)!

1. One-Upmanship: This is a way of making those you are listening to feel inferior is by gaining status of being “one-up” on them. This listener will launch into a story that is bigger or more dramatic, thereby turning the conversation into a tiny competition. Yeesh.

2. The Fixer-Upper: This is when the listener immediately goes into fix-it mode and offers a solution: “Here’s what I think you should do!”

3. The Detective: This listener will pepper someone with questions without really hearing the answers or responding to them. While asking questions is good, it can become like an investigation or a game instead of a meaningful conversation.

5 Ways to Listen with Empathy

Listening with empathy is a willingness to put yourself in the shoes of another and listen in a way that they feel acknowledged, safe and valued.

What kinds of actions demonstrate that you are listening with empathy?

1. Don’t rush the sharing—even if the person sharing rambles.
2. Don’t get distracted or look away. Lean in. Ask a question or two (but not more).
3. Use feeling words: e.g., Try this: “That must have felt terrible.” or “You look upset.”
4. Refrain from sharing your story, just listen.
5. Allow for silence. And then, don’t offer advice, offer support instead. Try this: “What do you think would be the best thing to do?”

Try picking one of these suggestions and practicing it in your everyday conversations. I’ve been working on two of these: (1) literally sitting on my iPhone so I don’t get distracted, and; (2) offering support instead of advice. Refraining from offering advice is such a challenge but I’m making progress. Try it. I’ve learned that it feels fabulous to listen with empathy.

Submitted by
Kristine Theurer, PhD

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