Some Tips for Listening Well (Empathic Listening)

Listening really well is like taking an instant mini-vacation. You get to almost vicariously experience another person’s reality. But to do this, you have to temporarily set aside your inner stream of private thoughts, your desire to share your own experiences, and even your desire to give helpful advice.

Empathic listening is powerful because you are making the effort to be with the other person and put it into words, tone of voice and body language. Being an empathic listener involves two skills: First, you must pick out the core message from all that a person is saying. Second, you must accurately put their core message into words that show that you are ‘with’ them, for the moment.

The core message is usually composed of two parts: One is what they are feeling. The other is the related experience or behavior. Here are two very simple empathic statements:

‘You were angry because they fired you unfairly.’   (feeling  +  experience)

‘I get the idea that you were elated because you finally had the courage to speak up.’   (feeling  +  behavior)

To empathize, you have to pick the main feelings, experiences, and behaviors out of all that is being said, including digressions. To be a good listener takes practice and concentration. So be patient with yourself and give yourself time to think before making your response so it will be accurate.

Sometimes the person isn’t fully aware of their feelings and so your statement is a hunch they will either agree with or not. Note that the speaker of the second statement above softened it, by using the phrase, ‘I get the idea that…’  When you aren’t absolutely sure that you’re empathy is accurate, you should make your statements tentative like this.

Of course, in the small groups and during the other parts of the meeting, it’s not expected or desired that you always give a verbal response to every statement. That would make the meeting too long and repetitive. So another skill is knowing when empathy will be appreciated and helpful, and when just doing attentive listening will be enough.

During the discussion and especially during the support group format, listening well is the most important thing you can do.

This was only the briefest of introductions to good listening.  If you want to become a good listener it’s recommended that you practice it with others. A 16-page resource on communication skills including empathic listening is also available.


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