Empathic Listening

See also: Top Tips for Effective Listening

Our page on Mindful Listening explains that listening to someone with your full attention—including consciously bringing your mind back if it wanders—can increase your empathy. However, there is also a separate concept called empathic listening. This describes a way of listening with your “ears, eyes and heart”, as one blog writer put it eloquently.

Just like mindful listening, some people suggest that empathic listening is the same as Active Listening. Certainly both mindful and active listening can improve your empathy. However, there is more to empathic listening than simply paying attention and responding.

This page describes empathic listening, and explains what skills you need to develop this ability.

What Is Empathic Listening?

Empathic listening is the process of making an emotional connection with someone who is speaking. This enables you to put yourself into their shoes, and feel with them—the definition of empathy.

It is therefore an extension of active listening, but requires a conscious and much stronger focus on feelings. Crucially, empathic listening gives the speaker space to feel heard and validated. It is therefore perhaps more of a therapeutic technique than active listening, which is more about supporting good two-way communication.

The main aim of empathic listening is usually to provide support or encouragement to the speaker.

This therefore sets it apart from other forms of active listening, where the goal is to understand the communication and respond in whatever way seems most appropriate.

However, this does not mean that empathic listening is only for therapeutic situations. It can be extremely useful at work for ensuring that you fully understand a situation, both facts and feelings, and actively showing that you have heard, understood and accepted someone’s message.

Empathic listening and time

Perhaps more than any other form of listening, empathic listening takes time.

When you are engaging in empathic listening, you have identified that the speaker may be processing emotions, and needs you to be emotionally engaged. This is unlikely to be a rapid process.

It is therefore important that you clear your mind, including your mental calendar or ‘to do’ list to give the other person that time.

This may not be convenient—but emotions are not always convenient in their timing, and sometimes you need to provide support more than you need to make that phone call, or go to that meeting.

Practical Empathic Listening

Aside from needing to give the speaker adequate time, there are other characteristics of practical empathic listening. They include:

  • A complete lack of judgement. Empathic listening requires you to put aside your own opinions and views, and concentrate wholly on the speaker. Importantly, you need to show that you accept the speaker’s message, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. You can show that you are doing this by using phrases such as ‘I understand’ and ‘I see’.

  • Giving your full attention. As with any kind of effective listening, empathic listening requires you to give the speaker your full attention. In order to do this, you have to be ‘present’. You may find our page on Mindful Listening is helpful in developing this technique.

  • A focus on both facts and feelings. Empathic listening means being aware of, and understanding, the speaker’s feelings and emotions, as well as the words that they are using. This means consciously trying to understand the meaning of what they are saying—but also what is behind the words, and what they are not saying. Much of this will probably be in their body language and other non-verbal communication.

  • Acknowledging feelings. Especially at work, it can feel strange to acknowledge feelings in a conversation. However, it is an important part of empathic listening—and even just saying ‘I can see that you feel quite strongly about this’ is helpful in showing the speaker that you are aware of more than just words.

  • Demonstrating that you are listening. For example, when you are focused on someone, you tend to mirror their body language. Nodding is also a way to encourage speaking. There is more about these aspects in our page on Active Listening.

  • Giving the speaker space to speak. You do not need to fill every pause. Empathic listening gives the speaker time and space to gather their thoughts and speak again if they wish to do so.

  • Clarifying, summarising, reflecting and paraphrasing. Much of empathic listening is about what is NOT being said. It is therefore even more vital than usual to check your understanding—including of the emotional aspects. Naming emotions is powerful, and can be very helpful to the speaker, especially if they are struggling to do this.

    You may find our pages on clarifying and reflecting are useful in developing these skills.
  • Letting the speaker lead the conversation. As we said before, empathic listening is more of a therapeutic technique. It is therefore not really about an equal conversation. Instead, you should let the speaker lead the conversation, including setting pauses, or showing you when they want you to speak.

  • Responding appropriately when it is required. The final element of any effective listening is responding. This might be through silence, or it might be by providing your view, or some other feedback. Good empathic listeners are able to give the right response at the right time.

Skills for Empathic Listening

Aside from the practical skills mentioned above, such as reflecting and clarifying, empathic listening also requires you to develop some specific personal skills and qualities.

First of all, of course, empathic listening requires empathy. This is the quality of ‘feeling with’ someone. It is therefore distinct from sympathy, which is ‘feeling for’. Empathic listeners also require compassion, which can broadly be defined as ‘empathy with added action’. People who show compassion therefore feel with others, and take action to help them to address their situation.

Empathic listening also requires plenty of patience. You need to be prepared to wait for the speaker to gather and express their thoughts, without interrupting or making assumptions about what they might want to say. Similarly, you also need to be able to avoid making judgements.

It also requires you to be trustworthy. Like empathy itself, trustworthiness is one of the elements of emotional intelligence. Someone who is trustworthy can be relied on to do the right thing, guided by their inner ‘moral compass’. Trustworthy people act with integrity. For example, they would not betray something said in confidence, or gossip about someone else’s problems.

Empathic listening is also helped by better self-awareness and self-control. These two qualities are also part of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness describes the ability to recognise your own emotions and your personal strengths and weaknesses. It is crucial for empathic listening, because you need to be able to recognise when you are responding emotionally to the speaker. You then need to apply your self-control to put aside your own emotions to listen more clearly and ensure that your response is appropriate.

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A Final Thought

It is extremely powerful to listen to someone with your full attention.

Empathic listening means doing so in a way that enables you to make a conscious effort to listen to feelings and emotions as well as facts. It is therefore a very good way to fully understand a situation.