What is Empathic Listening?
At a specific level it’s a way for people to support others through a balanced form of attentive, calm, connected and non-directive listening. For listeners, it’s a healthy way to support others without the “emotional drain” that can often go with empathic interactions.
At a broader level, it’s a philosophy that says that people are best suited by finding their own answers in life, and that an Empathic Listener can help facilitate that process.
How does Empathic Listening work?
Let’s say that you have a friend who has just gone through a tough experience. It’s overwhelming, and they really want to talk with someone. They don’t actually want advice, they just want to connect with someone and get some sense of relief from what they’re going through.
As anEmpathic Listener, you’d invite your friend to talk about what’s bothering them, and then you’d listen attentively, giving your friend as much space as possible to talk. Occasionally you’d check in with them, in a specific way, to reconfirm the connection and encourage them to continue talking and thinking.
When the connection is good, it often results in the speaker feeling relieved, and also having new insights into their situation. And as a listener, you feel good because you haven’t emotionally “taken on” your friend’s challenges, and yet you’ve facilitated their relief and growth.
Is Empathic Listening different from Active Listening?
The answer is that it has similarities and differences. Active Listening is similar to Empathic Listening in that when the listener does speak, it’s done without advice, judgment, guidance, and so on.
But there are several differences. First off, in Active Listening, listeners are encouraged to “listen for meaning,” often in terms of a feeling, to guess at that feeling, and then feed it back to the speaker.
In Empathic Listening we encourage listeners to work with what’s been explicitly put out there by the speaker. This may or may not include feelings, and if it doesn’t, we don’t project them.
Another difference is that in Active Listening, it appears that listeners are reflecting back what they hear, often literally, much more often. It’s hard to know if this is just a consequence of the examples given in the books, but it appears to be more like a back and forth, where the speaker and listener are talking for roughly the same amount of time.
In Empathic Listening, the common pattern is one of the speaker talking for a while, and then the listener quite briefly reflecting back in a specific way and then the speaker continuing. So in Empathic Listening, the speaker is doing much more of the talking; the listener just talks to foster the connection, and to support the speaker’s exploration.
Why is that helpful to just be listened to?
Typically in these conversations, when I’m the speaker I’m half expecting the listener to jump in at some point with their point of view and advice. I’m almost waiting for it.
So as a listener, by hanging back, and not jumping in with advice or a point of view or a story, the signal to the speaker is that it’s their story to tell. Many times a speaker will get liberatedto open up more.
So as an Empathic Listener you never say anything?
Not exactly. Often a speaker will have a certain train of thought that they follow along as they talk about the situation. And if given enough space, they will continue that train of thought through to the end, and then be quiet.
Does Empathic Listening have a basis in a specific religious or spiritual practice?
Empathic Listening is not founded on any particular religious or spiritual belief. As far as we know, it is compatible with any religious or spiritual background.