Empathic listening, sometimes called active listening or reflective listening, goes far beyond simply paying attention. It’s about making someone feel validated and seen.
When done correctly, listening with empathy can deepen your connections and give others a sense of belonging when they talk to you. Even better? It’s an easy thing to learn and put into practice.
The first step toward showing someone they have your full attention is by facing them and maintaining eye contact in a relaxed way.
Usually, when someone is talking to us, we might unconsciously turn away from them and rehearse our grocery list or think of places we want to go for dinner. But empathic listening involves the entire body.
Imagine your closest friend shows up to your lunch date sobbing. Would you casually ask her what’s wrong over your shoulder? Chances are, you’d immediately turn around to face her. Aim to do the same in any conversation.
We’re often so caught up in our phones that we don’t realize when someone in front of us is trying to meaningfully connect.
Instead of answering text messages and nodding along with whatever your partner is saying, put all devices away and ask them to do the same. By getting rid of distractions, you can focus on each other and be more present.
It’s hard for people to truly connect when they feel judged. To avoid this, be mindful when listening to them and avoid responding with disapproval or criticism even if you don’t personally agree with what they’re saying.
Say a friend confides in you that they’re having problems in their relationship. Instead of immediately jumping in with what you think they’re doing wrong in the relationship, go for something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry to hear that, you must be under a lot of stress right now.”
This doesn’t mean that you can’t give suggestions, especially if they ask for them. Just don’t do it when you’re playing the role of listener.
Try to resist telling your own point of view when they’re sharing something important with you.
If someone has just lost a relative, for example, don’t respond by mentioning your own losses. Instead, show them you care by asking a follow-up question about their experience or simply offering your support.
Here are some respectful responses you can try:
- “I’m so deeply sorry about your loss. I know how much you loved them.”
- “Tell me more about your mother.”
- “I can’t possibly understand how you feel, but I’m here when you need me.”
When the other person is talking, avoid thinking about what you’re going to say next or interrupting them. Slow things down and wait for pauses in the conversation before you jump in.
Try to concentrate on and picture what they’re saying to help you stay alert in longer convos.
Don’t just listen with your ears.
You can tell if a person is feeling excited, annoyed, or overwhelmed by taking note of their body language and tone of voice. Notice the expression around their eyes, mouth and how they’re sitting.
If your partner’s shoulders are slumped while they tell you about their day, for example, they may need some extra support.
Just because someone shares their problems, it doesn’t mean they’re seeking advice in return. Remember that most people are looking for validation and support and likely won’t be interested in hearing the solutions you have to offer (no matter how well-intentioned they are).
If your friend just lost their job and wants to vent, for example, avoid immediately suggesting places they can send their resume (you can offer this information later on if they express interest). Instead, let them take charge of the conversation and only give your input if asked.
Empathic listening means being conscious during uncomfortable conversations and not denying the other person’s concerns or worries.
Even if their issues seem small to you, simply acknowledging their feelings can make them feel heard and validated.
When listening, it’s important to show that you’ve understood what the other person is trying to tell you. This means nodding and offering feedback by remembering details and repeating key points back to them.
To show proof that you’re listening, try the following phrases:
- “You must be thrilled!”
- “That seems like a difficult situation to be in.”
- “I understand that you feel hurt.”
Nobody’s perfect. You might have moments in a conversation where you’re unsure of what to do or say. And sometimes, you might say the wrong thing. Everyone does at some point.
Instead of worrying about whether or not you’re properly listening or responding, focus on keeping yourself present. More often than not, people simply want to be heard and understood.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.