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What, Why & When
(Active) Empathetic listening is a skill that helps to understand a dialogue partner on a deeper level. It strengthens the bond between conversation partners, soothes the work atmosphere during stressful phases, prevents the reproduction of injustice, and enriches creative thinking. This ability can become especially useful during qualitative interviews, customer/client/patient conversations, and conversations between co-workers, e.g. (trans)disciplinary researchers, or co-workers in any other field of work. It is best performed without time pressure.
(Active) Empathetic listening exceeds mere punctual information gathering, and even effective listening which enables to actively read a more complete image of what is being said. Through empathetic listening, emotional information - which includes experiences being told or preferences being shared - is not only listened to but empathetically engaged with. It involves a set of other skills that must and will be acquired throughout its training.
It all starts with the setting. It is best to create a quiet and comfortable atmosphere, although this may no longer be neccessary with rising experience with the skill. A comfortable atmosphere enhances the concentration on what is being said. Also, visual distractions, fidgeting or eating, and drinking should be held to a minimum. A setting free of distraction also includes taking enough time for the conversation, so that nothing must be rushed through and consequently enough patience to not only sit out the meeting but actively participate as the listener.
However, your positioning towards the speaker is fundamental. This includes for one your actual pose and your body language, which should be open, genuine, and neither too neutral nor too emotionally charged with your own emotions. This also includes your actual positioning as a person. First, take yourself back. It is very important to be selfless and genuinely interested in the other. This creates the key element of what makes somebody listen to - and not only hear - others. To enhance your interest and show it to your dialogue partner, try to think of open-ended questions. You can also paraphrase the speaker’s perspective to remember and internalize better what has been said.
This way, it becomes easier to actively imagine the other one’s experiences, ideas, and emotions. Since emotionally charged topics might come up, being emotionally available and tolerant is another key competence. This must exclude interruption of the speaker and may exclude criticism if the speaker does not precisely ask for it. Also, filling the silence with your own words instead of giving time for the speaker to think thoroughly and continue the talk is not desirable. At the end of the conversation, you may want to ask for a follow-up conversation, especially if time unexpectedly runs short or the topic was complex or emotionally challenging. Remember the well-being of the speaker is of the utmost importance. If no follow-up conversation is wished for, do not pressure the speaker for one.
Here is a brief list of the presented competencies you need to practice empathetic listening:
- Create/chose a quiet, comfortable, and non-distracting environment to be “in” the moment.
- Take time and be patient.
- Use open and friendly body language.
- Take yourself back.
- Be selfless.
- Be reserved about criticism.
- Do not interrupt or fill up the silence with your thoughts, except for signs of understanding.
- Do not only show interested, but actually be interested. Remember you can learn from anybody and anything. Ask open-ended questions.
- Be empathetic!
- Imagine and remember what is being told.
- Paraphrase what has been said to remember better.
- Be emotionally invested and open-minded.
- Ask for a follow-up conversation.
As you can see, the practice of empathetic listening does not only depend on these competencies but they are also trained throughout the act of empathetic listening.
Links and further reading
- Lucette B. Comer and Tanya Drollinger (1999): Active Empathetic Listening and Selling Success: A Conceptual Framework. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, pp. 15-29.
- Clowse MEB (2020). Learning to listen: how empathetic engagement with patients can help overcome reproductive injustice. Lupus Science & Medicine; 7:e000455. doi: 10.1136/lupus-2020-000455
- Empathic Listening: Definition, Examples and Tips. (2021, February 8). Indeed Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/empathic-listening
- Mind Tools Content Team. (2018, July 19). Empathic Listening: Going Beyond Active Listening. Mind Tools. https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/EmpathicListening.htm
- Saleem, A. (2019, June 18). Empathic Listening Skill -10 Best Exercises To Acquire Empathic Listening. The Life Virtue. https://thelifevirtue.com/empathic-listening-skill/
The author of this entry is Mona Hübner.