Do you know the difference between hearing and listening? Hearing is the simple matter of receiving sound waves in your ears. Listening, on the other hand, is about both hearing and understanding.

How can you make sure you’re not just hearing but also understanding? By utilizing empathetic listening skills.

Empathetic listening has been shown to help deepen your connections, which is just one reason, why this type of listening is so important to develop. 

Here’s why and how to put empathetic listening skills into practice.

What is empathic listening?

“Empathic” and “empathetic” both come from the word empathy: the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. For example, feeling the same joy as your loved one who just landed a new job or feeling the same sadness as a friend who just lost a parent. 

That feeling is just one part of the skill known as empathetic and empathic listening. It also involves active listening, asking questions, and essentially reflecting on the other person’s feelings to better understand their point of view.

Why empathetic listening is important

Empathetic listening can help deepen connections. 

Empathetic listening is an important way to build trust and respect with your friends, family, and other connections. As you might imagine, this can make a substantial difference in your relationships. 

One study had 48 couples in romantic relationships participate in an empathy training program where they learned all about empathy and empathetic listening.¹ The researchers found that couples who noticed an increase in their partner’s empathy reported feeling more satisfied in their relationships.

Another study focusing on friendship and empathy found that those with a higher level of empathy managed conflict better and had closer relationships.²

Empathetic listening promotes positive emotions 

If you want to make the people in your life feel good, do so with empathetic listening. One study found that 85% of people reported feeling positive effects of being listened to with empathy.³ 

Although that result might seem obvious or intuitive, it solidifies just how impactful effective listening is. Another study involving 120 people looked at how the level of empathy in the listener’s response impacts the emotions of someone narrating a nostalgic memory.⁴  The researchers created three groups: empathetic listeners, non-empathetic listeners, and people who didn’t respond at all. They found that those with an empathetic listener spoke longer and experienced more positive emotions and a greater sense of nostalgia. 

The bottom line is that empathetic listening makes people feel good because they are validated and seen. 

empathetic listening

Empathetic listening can boost morale 

Additional research looked at supervisors’ active-empathetic listening role in employees’ engagement at work. It specifically looked at employees’ vigor, dedication, and absorption. 

They found that employees with supervisors who were active-empathetic listeners reported significantly high dedication scores. 

This suggests that supervisors who truly, actively, and empathetically listen to their employees boost effectiveness and enthusiasm and enhance their involvement at work.⁵ 

Empathetic listening can make a difference in physical health 

A review of seven different studies examined the importance of empathy in healthcare practices.⁶ The researchers found that employing empathetic listening helps patients feel more satisfied and less stressed while strengthening their ability to understand and cope with life and illness – meaning they are more apt to adhere to treatment. 

Other research also found that when healthcare practitioners employ empathy and empathetic listening, people experience better health outcomes.⁷ 

Listening Morale Professional wellness

How to practice empathetic listening 

Putting empathetic listening skills into practice isn’t as tricky as you might think. Here’s how to start:

Get rid of distractions 

Don’t forget that part of empathetic listening is active listening, and it’s hard to do so if you’re distracted. So put your phone away, the book down, and turn the TV off if you have a meaningful conversation. Limiting these distractions helps you focus on being a better listener and shows the other person that they have your undivided attention. 

Learn the art of paraphrasing 

Have you ever heard the saying about assumptions? That they can make an a** out of you and me? That still rings true. So when you’re listening empathetically, it’s extremely important to reflect the feelings of the other person you see or hear to ensure you understand. 

Don’t assume that someone is feeling a certain way, nor tell them what they’re feeling, but rather paraphrase and ask how they feel. For example, you could say, “So it sounds like you’re upset that they didn’t text you back because you’re worried they’re cheating?” Or “That seems like a difficult situation to be in.” Paraphrasing helps confirm you got the message right and allows the other to expand on their feelings and emotions.  

Ask open-ended questions 

Piggybacking off that last suggestion, make sure you’re asking open-ended questions. It allows people the chance to share, and specifically, asking open-ended questions allows the conversation to flow. Plus, even when they want to some people have difficulty opening without a prompt to do so. 

Don’t give unsolicited advice 

Speaking of questions, always ask before giving advice. Often, people want to jump to attention to help solve a problem or find a solution, but sometimes the best thing you can do is just listen. Always ask if the other person wants to hear the advice that you have to offer. And let them know you’re there to support them, even if they aren’t interested in hearing advice right now. 

Remember, it’s not about you 

One of the more frustrating things that can happen with someone trying to be an empathetic listener is oversharing. Sometimes people attempt to show empathy by sharing their own experiences. While this can be helpful, there is a fine line between sharing and making the conversation all about yourself. If, for example, someone’s telling you about their loss, it’s OK to mention your own, but only use it as a way to relate or help. 

Embrace awkward silence

Although it doesn’t have to, silence can sometimes be awkward, especially in emotionally charged conversations. Still, that doesn’t mean you need to fill it with chatter. Allow some breathing room for the other person to process their feelings and emotions. 

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