As a follow-up to my earlier post introducing empathetic listening, I am providing some tips you can use to improve your relationships and communication.
Here are 8 strategies for practicing empathic listening:
- Take the time.
Active, empathic listening requires time. The speaker needs to feel they have all the time in the world to release the flood of feelings and worries they have bottled up inside. Only when they release this backlog of emotion are they finally able to have clarity and the ability to reach conclusions.
It’s easy to lose patience with a speaker who is processing his or her feelings and articulating them through the fog of emotion or confusion. You can’t rush the speaker through this process or expect them to accept your quick solution. Patience is imperative if you truly want to help someone.
- Offer empathy, not sympathy.
Sometimes we disguise empathic listening with words of sympathy. Perhaps we have experienced a similar situation, so we share it to let the speaker know we understand. To the speaker trying to process difficult emotions, it can feel like you’re stealing their thunder or deflecting attention to yourself.
True empathetic listening requires you leave your stories and experiences at the door. You don’t need to share them for the speaker to know you understand what she is saying. Empathy says, “I get you,” rather than “I get you because I’ve had it even worse.”
- Pay attention to body language.
Your entire body needs to let the speaker know you are fully present. Turn off your phone so you aren’t tempted to look at it. Try not to shift your eyes to pay attention to others around you. Keep an open, accepting posture with your arms and legs uncrossed.
Lean in as the other person is speaking and look them in the eye on occasion (but not constantly). Try not to fidget or shift around to show impatience or irritation.
- Refrain from solutions.
As much as you might want to jump in and save the day with the perfect solution, don’t do it. Just listen, nod, make small comments that show you’ve heard what was said. But don’t interrupt the process the speaker is going through as they make their way to a solution themselves.
You will generally find that if you wait, the other person will come to the same conclusion. If they ask you for a solution directly, don’t offer it right away. Ask the speaker what they would suggest to you if the roles were reversed. Always try to give the power back to the other person.
- Use open-ended, empathic, or dangling questions.
Use thoughtful, open-ended questions (that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer) to invite deeper thought and consideration from the speaker. You might ask, “How did you feel about that?” 0r “What do you think the best next step might be?”
You can also ask empathetic questions that relate to the speaker’s emotional state. You might ask, “What were you feeling when that happened?” You might notice the speaker looks sad (or angry or fearful), and you can say, “Your expression looks sad. What’s behind that?”
Try not to use leading questions with the intention of directing the speaker to your solution. Your goal is to help them gain more clarify and self-awareness. One way to do this is with a dangling question. This kind of question is an incomplete question like, “And if you had to do it again, you might . . .” It leaves things hanging without an answer, so the speaker can determine the direction of the conversation.
- Ask for more.
Often a speaker will offer a crumb of information, and you can tell it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You know or suspect there’s more just below the surface, and all they need is a nudge to bring it forth. Even if you don’t suspect there’s more, there usually is, so it’s always worth asking.
A question as simple as, “Is there more?” can unleash more of the story or the emotions behind the story. You can ask this several times (maybe slightly rephrased) until it’s clear the speaker has nothing more to add on the topic.
- Repeat a phrase or word.
When the speaker is sharing powerful information, they may conclude with a sentence or statement that expresses their pain, worry, or frustration. For example, the speaker might tell a story about being betrayed by a friend and conclude with the statement, “I am so mad, I never want to speak to her again.” You can repeat, “You are so mad, you just don’t want to speak to her.” Or you can just say, “You’re really mad.”
This lets the speaker know you are tracking with her and gives her a cue to add more or clarify her statement. When you repeat the word or phrase, try to imitate the same tone of voice the speaker used. Don’t repeat it as a question or with any judgment.
- Allow for silences.
Long silences can be uncomfortable, but resist the urge to fill the silence with your suggestions or remarks. Allow the speaker to use the silence to process his or her thoughts and then to break the silence when they are ready to speak.
When you give them this space without interrupting them, you are letting them know you’re there for them and willing to allow them the time they need to gain clarity. When a speaker realizes you aren’t going to interrupt them, they are free to slow down and process more internally, which is necessary for analytical thinking.
You might find these silences and slower-paced talking difficult to handle. But it is truly a gift to just be present and allow the speaker the freedom to reflective and articulate at his or her own pace.
Is there a time to offer challenges or suggestions?
When you have been the empathic listener and spent a good amount of time allowing the speaker to vent and process, the speaker will likely come to some conclusion or solution for themselves. Or maybe they will still be confused but feel greatly relieved and have more clarity than they did previously.
Once the emotion is drained and the words spoken and heard, then it may be appropriate for you to offer suggestions or challenge something you feel needs to be reconsidered. Always ask the speaker if they want your input before you offer your words. At this point, they should have trust in you and recognize you aren’t passing judgment on them.
Let me know if you have any questions:
Emailfirstname.lastname@example.org or call/text-484-876-1842.