Listen with Empathy

Our ability to openly share information, build meaningful relationships, and make well-informed decisions often gets derailed by one common problem: an inability to listen. More specifically, an inability to listen with empathy.

Listening with empathy is a skill. It takes practice. And like every skill, the more you practice, the better you get. Understanding and sharing the feelings of another person requires setting our own egos aside, being fully attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others, and opening ourselves to information that may change the way we think.

To become a better listener, practice these five approaches to listening with empathy:

1. Stay distraction-free.

Currently, 47 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all ban text messaging for drivers. Why? Because texting diverts your attention from driving! Talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking with people in your vehicle, piddling with the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system—all these things draw your attention away from the things you’re supposed to be focused on: driving safely. Bottom line, you cannot drive safely unless the actual task of driving has your full attention.

The same can be said for listening. If you’re going to be fully attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others, start by eliminating distractions and focus solely on the other person. Lean forward, make eye contact, and open your ears, mind, and heart.

2. Ask questions.

Great questions drive great conversations. It’s the difference between two people talking at one another and two people talking with each other. Are you engaging with what the other person is saying, and responding appropriately, with questions that lead the conversation deeper? Or are you just saying what you planned on saying regardless as soon as you get a chance? When it’s your time to speak, instead of responding with a comment, ask a question about something the other person said. Then ask another. Like pulling thread off a spool, ask questions to get to the core of the subject. The more you listen, the more you will learn—making your responses increasingly relevant and meaningful.

3. Put yourself in their shoes.

If you’re not listening empathetically, words are just that: words. While you might be listening enough for the words to communicate and inform, take the next step. Don’t just listen with your mind, also listen with your heart. Words don’t just convey information; if you’re listening empathetically, they will evoke emotions or feelings. Try and experience the other person’s feelings to better understand their words.

4. Don’t invalidate their thoughts and feelings.

When someone tells us what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling, you may instinctively be tempted to respond by saying things like, “You should never feel that way!” Or, “You shouldn’t think that!” But don’t do it! That type of response invalidates the thoughts and feelings the other person just expressed and doesn’t promote further conversation. Consider: the other person just told you something they genuinely believe, something they feel is true. For you to tell them they shouldn’t think or feel that way is not going to build the relationship; it’s an attack on their thought processes and emotions, and will make the other person defensive and mistrustful. Instead, we should acknowledge exactly what they communicated, put ourselves in their shoes, and ask more questions to understand what they feel and why they feel it. It’s only when you’ve demonstrated an understanding of the other person’s perspective that they’ll be open to your advice.

5. Repeat back what you just heard.

Have you ever played the telephone game? One person whispers a message to another person, who whispers the same message to another person, until it’s gone person-by-person through an entire group. Inevitably, the message the last person reveals is quite different from the original message. It turns out this isn’t just a party game phenomenon, though. It happens all the time in interpersonal communication, where two people think they understand one another, but it turns out they are talking about completely different things, and the conversation goes nowhere.

To keep everyone focused on the actual conversation, use repetition. After the other person has communicated a complete thought or statement, repeat back to them what you just heard. When this is done accurately and repeatedly throughout the conversation, you’re letting the other person know that you understand. And if your understanding is flawed, it gives them an opportunity to restate what they’re actually trying to say and get things back on track.

So, get rid of the distractions, ask questions, put yourself in their shoes, don’t invalidate their thoughts and feelings, and repeat back what you just heard―do those 5 things and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better, more empathetic listener.

Will Adams

Will Adams

Will Adams is the GM for Small Business Services for Will leads the company’s efforts in serving small business owners and their employees through consulting, software, education, employee training, and advocacy. Will is also the co-founder of a successful Software as a Service (SaaS) business that currently serves small museums and family offices throughout North America. In addition to his business interests, Will serves on the board of Atlanta Children’s Foundation, connecting individuals, organizations, and resources to meet the needs of children in foster care.