Steps to Develop Empathetic Listening Skills

Steps to Develop Empathetic Listening Skills

Steps to Develop Empathetic Listening Skills

Can you guess the average adult attention span for listening? Most say around 30 minutes. However, according to statistics, it’s only 7 seconds! That’s right – every seven seconds our brains take us somewhere else. If we’re listening, we need to make a conscious effort to stay engaged and resist the attempts of our brain to go somewhere else.

Listening is an effective way to forge a strong relationship with the other person or persons engaged in a conversation. It involves three steps:

  • Receiving the message communicated by the sender
  • Interpreting it for arriving at the meaning
  • Responding to the message

If this process is to be complete and effective, you need to make a conscious effort in all the three steps – hearing and interpreting the sounds, grasping the meaning of words spoken (and unspoken), and responding appropriately. Otherwise, communication will get derailed and you will not get the expected results. With empathetic listening, you can build trust and help the other person open up. Eventually, you can get the best out of the conversation.

Stephen Covey mentions how active listening helped sales people increase their sales. In fact, the way sales people communicate with their customers is said to play an important role in the selling process (Corner and Drollinger, 1999). Listening is positively related to a buyer’s trust in and satisfaction with the salesperson. A conceptual model in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 2005 Taylor & Francis, Ltd. fills an important gap that links salesperson empathy and listening skills. The model indicates a strong positive relationship between empathy and the following: salesperson listening, trust in the salesperson, and satisfaction with the salesperson.

Empathetic listening works well in resolving disputes because you can understand the disputant well. You can reduce tension because you allow the person to be heard. Thus, you can bring the disputant to a possible solution through dialogue and without hurting his/her sentiments. Let us now look at a few aspects of empathetic listening.

1. Allow the other person to talk more

In active listening, it is not about you dominating the conversation but sharing the dialogue with your partner. So do not try to dominate the conversation by imposing your ideas on the other person. Instead, encourage the other person to express himself/herself more by expressing interest in what he/she is saying. In this regard, your body language plays an influential role, so ensure you use friendly gestures.

2. Keep asking questions

By asking the right question at the right time, you can help the other person express himself/herself better. Never sound interrogative. This will discourage your partner. Judiciously use open-ended questions such as ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and so on. Do not evaluate the other person’s statements critically. If you do not get a point, paraphrase his/her words and ask if you have understood him/her correctly.

3. Reflect on what is being said

The term empathetic means feeling the same way as the other person. This involves going beyond the literal meaning of the words and exploring the feelings attached to them by the speaker. This will give you a better idea of what the speaker is really feeling beneath his verbal communication. You can accordingly prepare your response so that it does not hurt the other person’s feelings.

By doing so, you convey the message that you respect the speaker and his/her feelings. Thus, you can build a positive relation with him/her. Once you earn his/her trust, you can mould his/her extreme opinions and bring him/her to an amicable solution. Thus, you can be a better communicator in disputes.

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  • What a great topic for anyone.Being an empathetic listener takes a lot of focus on the listener behalf. There are so many instances when the listener mind may dwell away from the speaker’s conversation. So, rcieving the message,interpeting the message, and to reply with a response with the sense and the ability to share what the speaker has said, it takes a great deal of concentration and focus on the listener, with understanding the situation’s subject matter, and then elaborating with the feeling of what the speaker has said. Thanks for the knowledge to make communication more effective.

  • Wade Hampton

    This topic is so appropriate today with the state of affairs present in our current economy. In the housing industry, empathetic listening is sorely needed and often neglected. Especially where the topics are loan default, loss mitigation, and foreclosure.

    After reading this article and reviewing the tags I decided to go back and read “Everyone Communicates Few Connect” by John Maxwell again. Great topic for a blog. Thanks for sharing.

  • Russ

    The mind is like a chattering monkey. Good listening means getting that darn monkey to be quiet…to actually just be still and be open to what the other is saying. Given that we can mentally process much faster than someone can speak to us, it is really difficult to slow down and just be present in the moment.

  • Jenny

    “Active listening” is kind of an oxymoron since “to listen” is a verb. I think it’s important to remember that listening is not about waiting for your chance to speak. Being silent yourself is can be the best way to hear what others are saying.

  • Dwight

    Excellent posting, as others point out – thanks for the timely reminder.

    However, the next step in listening is to act (or speak) appropriately to what you have heard. I think there is a lot of “good listening” going on that only leads to the same old programmed responses that a computer survey could spit out.

    Our challenge as analysts is to listen to the feedback and dynamically apply it to our message – real time. When I do it well, it’s more than challenging enough to quiet Russ’s monkeys.

  • Michael J. Spangle

    A very wise man, named James, once wrote the following words, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” I believe that these words represent the best answer to that question for the following reasons:

    Being swift to hear means focusing on what the other person is saying, not only with their words, but with their heart. It means giving up the “right” to jump into the middle of the sentence with an answer to what you think the other person is saying.

    Being slow to speak means doesn’t mean that you talk real slow and drag your words out. It means weighing your words so that they will do the most good. Sometimes this means speaking hard truths with the harshness removed. Sometimes it means bringing words of comfort.

    Being slow to wrath means being willing to set your own feelings aside and really listen to the other person. It means giving them the benefit of the doubt instead of blowing your top.

  • Taking the time to listen and ask open ended questions without judging the students I tutor has helped to create an effective learning enviornment.

  • Rabita Jamal

    Active and empathetic listening is indeed a skill that we need to master as human beings. It is ironic to know that each and every one of us actually has some level of empathetic listening skill within us – we seem to have lost it as we go about in our lives, which have become so fast paced, it’s unbelievable! Thanks for bringing this to light!

  • Dr. Shalini Ratan

    In my opinion empathy is not a skill rather a personality trait. If you feel good about yourself and are comfortable with your own SELF then only one can develop empathy for others. People who are inscure with ego are so full with themselves that they cannot be empathetic towards others. Once you have your own comfort level and you have compassion then only your ears will always be open to listen to others and help them.

    Or else it is just a mechanical skill to have open ears even if you are not willing for the same.

  • Good question Asha, and a good blog post on what is a crucially important topic. I have been researching the subject of ‘listening’ for 15 years. It is a major problem in business and society at large, and also specifically with researchers who generally have very little formal training in listening skills.

    However, the good news is that there is lots of great training in listening skills available these days from disciplines such as coaching, counselling, psychotherapy, NLP, etc. Some books and courses on sales effectiveness, client relationship building, etc also have great tips on empathic listening which are transferable. And there are of course bestsellers like Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ which includes ‘Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood’ – which Covey acknowledges has been practiced for 2000 years; he didn’t invent it!

  • Romana

    Very well said. Especially the 2nd paragraph on complete and effective communicating: If not complete and effective, you will not get expected results.

  • Active listening & listening skills in general are behavioral based. Not everyone has good listening skills as we all know. Roughly only 40% of the population has natural listening skills. We measure this by using behavioral assessments. There are however, exercises people can do to improve basic listening skills, after they recognize the need for improvement. After assessing a persons EQ, we can determine their level of mastered Emotional Intelligence. When a person has an average amount of empathy, these are the exercises we coach them to practice:

    Exercises you can do:
    * Attempt to understand others before communicating your point of view.
    * Observe nonverbal behavior to evaluate the negative or positive emotions of others.
    * Practice empathetic communication in response to your family members and
    * Watch interactions of other people that you determine to be empathetic. What can
    you do to model that behavior?
    * Break bad interpersonal habits, such as interrupting others.
    * Observe body language for nonverbal messages being expressed.
    * Seek clarification from others when attempting to read emotional responses.
    * Be nonjudgmental in your interactions with others.
    * Offer assistance to your friends, family and even strangers.

  • I’d add a caveat to the issue of what empathy is in the context of listening and that whatever we imagine is how the other person feels we risk turning that into a “meaniing” for what it would feel like if it were us. It isn’t and it is entirely possible that their response to the same circumstances may be very different from our own.

    That being said, stilling that internal voice that wants to translate everything that other people say is a good start. “Let them talk more” – is a good start but only if we are going to stop running scenarios and confecting “meanings” as a running internal dialogue in our head while they are talking. Just stop and Listen.

    When we speak we can be very good at generalising and sometimes we leave out the essential bits. Like about whom we are speaking – and so what we say can become ambiguous. More than this though, by leaving elements that clarify statements out (or sometimes by adding them in when they don’t have any real place there). This can lead us to making statements that contain assumptions that are not correct but are a reflection of our inner beliefs, self esteem, and view of how the world operates.

    To be a good listener, a good place to start is to learn to communicate cleanly and noticing when we are saying things that are subjective as fact, or leaving things out, or adding additional emotional judgments and stating them as facts. As we get better at cleaning up our own language, our thinking also becomes more clear.

    This helps us to better understand the point of view of others, even if it may be ill-informed so we can then respond to them in a way that they can ‘get’ and by asking direct questions and letting them respond with their own answers, we can work towards a clear and unambiguous understanding. From there, actions may be in order, or no action at all, but the discussion can serve some useful purpose.

  • Caieta, India

    To develop empathetic listening skills, one needs to acknowledge the other person’s response and hear it with an open mind. Additionally it is always a good idea to paraphrase and summarize what the other person has spoken. This is to avoid any personal biases which you may have gathered in the conversation.

  • Joe stafura

    The idea of active listening is a key element of our Continuous Coaching Platform, a smartphone based messaging system designed to help modify behavior for the goal of personal development.

    Paraphrasing, proper eye contact, nodding and inquiries are all components of the behavior. It is strange to me that some think listening is passive, it clearly is an active endeavor with real benefits to those who learn to listen expertly in meetings and conversations.

  • Develop Empathetic Listening Skills? – tools are helpful, the foundation is walking with Profound Openness, Interest in Other.

  • It depends on your audience. One tool that I’ve incorporated before is this exercise… The creator of ETC (Volney P. Gay, Ph.D.) has won various awards and is a Professor and Chair of Religion, Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

  • Hi Ayesha,

    As a children’s writer I have learned to be patient and listen. Your focus needs to be on the person, or persons – not what is the next task, job or activity to complete. And show that their thoughts have meaning, that you do care what they say is important. Being a mother also helps, you have to stop and listen.

    And that is what people need – time to listen. The book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” offers good points.

    Also, observe those that you believe are good listeners. Mimicry is the best complement. What do you notice that makes them good listeners (body position, eye focus, less talking, repeating the response back, asking questions)?

    Remember, listening takes time to learn, and that’s what you need ….time.

    Hope this helps,


  • I had posted the following in a LinkedIn group, and Dr. Omer requested that I repost it here:
    Empathy is a quality of being rather than a skill. I suggest working on being interested rather than interesting and being willing to (humbly) be of service to the other person, putting them first, in terms of their growth and development. Use reflecting skills and do your best to stay out of the space. This favorite quote of mine sums it up, for which I thank Douglas Steele and his work A Random Harvest: “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”

  • Kim Moffatt

    Empathic skills are far more than active listening, Suresh…

    I can actively listen to your problems, hear what you have to say and maybe understand that you have a personal concern of some sort, …and SO?

    Empathy is the ability for me (or anybody else)to be able to really ‘know’ what you ‘feel…and to let you know in an objective way that I understand is the ability to be able to ’emote’ be able to feel what you feel and to remain in an objective state while I assist you…some people are not capable of is not like riding a bike..some people can empathise, some cannot.’..some people confuse sympathise with empathise.

    I advise caution when discussing emotions…they are singularily personal…and very few people really wear their heart on their sleeve (so to speak).

  • Kim Moffatt

    Asma Zaineb,
    Three steps, Asma?

    Receiving the message communicated by the sender
    Interpreting it for arriving at the meaning and
    Responding to the message

    May I suggest 4 steps. #4. Achieve your purpose.

    The purpose of any communication is to achieve a purpose, ..something, anything…
    I may receive your message, I may interpret it correctly, I may even respond to your message in a purposeful and appropriate way..but at the end of the day, if I choose to do nothing…then your comminicatio has failed. Would you agree?

    After all, you would not have had the communication with me unless you wanted to achieve something…”words that are not the praise of the gods, are wasted”, so to speak…
    Now, be the conversation about your weekend activities, or what you needed me to do for you…the result is the same…you want me to do something for you.or know something for some other purpose.

    But, the exchange of information is for a purpose..yes?

    And if you do not achieve your purpose…what then?..the communication has failed…and your words have been wasted…

  • We used a simple exercise in a customer service/patient experience training program (for a medical college) to make a point about how it feels to be listened to. I told a friend about it, and she used it for the first time yesterday in a workshop she taught for managers at the University of California. One of the managers had a revelation about how her interaction with her blackberry makes the person (who is with her in person) feel – and that kicked off an interesting discussion.

    People are divided into pairs, Partner A and Partner B. In the first round, A is instructed to think of a happy memory and prepare to tell their partner the story. Meanwhile, Partner B receives instructions on a slip of paper. Their instructions are to use whatever body language, facial expression and non-verbal technique they can think of to make it clear to Partner A (telling the happy memory story) that they are not listening, not interested.

    Then there’s a de-brief to hear from both the speakers and the listeners. There are always Aha! lightbulb moments around the room.

    It’s fascinating that every person in the room knows exactly what to do to show they aren’t listening. And in the next part of the exercise, every person knows how to use a)intention b) body language c) facial expression and d) actions to indicate that they ARE interested, and capable of empathetic listening. Most of us have the knowledge and skills to be empathetic listeners.

  • Tommy Fakehany

    Active listening skills applied to the exchange of emails is more difficult to do, I’ve discovered, because of different writing skills of the writers. Most often their ability to spell changes what and how they say things and you miss important clues.