Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Empathic Listening

How to "Hear With
Your Heart"!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/listen.htm

Updated  01-07-2015

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Learn something about yourself with this 1-question anonymous poll.

      This brief YouTube clip previews what you'll read in this article. The video notes eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simplified that to seven:

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 2 - learn communication basics and seven powerful skills to get more daily needs met more often. Progress with this Lesson depends on concurrent progress on Lesson 1 - free your wise true Self to guide your personality in calm and conflictual times.

      This article overviews...

  • how hearing differs from listening

  • What empathic listening is, and why use it

  • Empathic-listening steps

  • When to use this powerful skill

  • What empathic listening sounds like; and...

  • Common alternatives to empathic listening.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web sit, and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • why listening is good for your health

  • perspective on awareness and empathy

      Start by ranking yourself. On a scale of 1 (I'm a poor listener) to 10 (I listen very well)...

    In non-conflicts with important adults and kids, my recent listening skill is a ___.

    In conflicts with important adults and kids, my recent listening skill is a ___.

    In non-conflicts at work or school, my recent listening skill is a ___.

    In conflicts at work or school, my recent listening skill is a ___.

    Recently, my ability to listen to my own self-talk in stressful situations is a ___.

       Listening vs. Hearing

       As you know, it's possible to hear or read someone's words without really understanding what they're thinking, feeling, and needing. Have you ever had someone talk at you, but not with you? Feeling heard (understood) well enough means "I perceive that...

  • you accurately receive what I think, feel, and need right now, and...

  • you respect both of us equally."

Anything less than this is listening. Does this help to explain why people frustrate each other by saying "You're not listening to (hearing) me!" "Yes I AM!" How many average adults and kids do you think are aware of what you just read?

     What is Empathic Listening?

       Many adults and all kids are unclear on the difference between sympathy (intellectually understanding what another person is experiencing) and empathy ( understanding + feeling what another person feels and needs). Typical (non-empathic) listening usually focuses passively on what the speaker says.

       Empathic listening is periodically summarizing what you sense the other person thinks, feels, and needs now without judgment. Listening empathically to confirm clear understanding can be called a "hearing check."

      How To "Hear With Your Heart" (thanks to Stephen Covey for this phrase)

      Tailor these options to fit your style and the situation. If you're undistracted and genuinely interested in your communication partner now...

  • Check to see if your true Self is leading your other subselves now. If not, it will probably be harder to stay grounded, focused, and non-judgmental.

  • Remind yourself that (a) respectful empathic listening is a gift you may give, and (b) it does not necessarily mean "I agree with you’!"

  • Temporarily set your own opinions and needs aside, and focus objectively on your partner:

    • watch their face, eyes, body, and hands. Note postures, motions, expressions, and gestures, or lack of these; and...

    • listen to their words and speech dynamics to guesstimate their main current thoughts, feelings, and needs. Then …

  • From time to time when the speaker pauses...

briefly (use a few words or a phrase, at most);

in your own words (avoid repeating theirs);

summarize the essence of what you believe they're thinking, feeling emotionally and/or physically, and needing,...

without questions, comments, or solutions (this is the hard part!).

Use attentive posture; comfortable eye contact; and gestures, expressions, and intensity that match the speaker's.

       With practice, when you’re truly focused on and empathic with your communication partners, these elements will happen automatically, just as your fingers "know" how to tie a bow "by themselves." 

      If you're uncomfortable introjecting (summarizing while your partner is still talking), picture a butter knife inserted in a stream of water: if the blade is parallel to the flow (empathy), inserting it doesn't disturb the flow (your partner's focus and thought stream).

      Inserting your needs, opinions, or thoughts is interrupting, which is like turning the knife-blade sideways in the water flow. Doing this usually signals you're locally controlled by a false self and your awareness "bubble" excludes your partner, so effective communication is unlikely.

       Some call this vital communication skill active listening, because it involves concentration, awarenesses, and periodic commenting by the listener, not just "sitting there nodding and grunting." Empathic listening is also called reflective listening and mirroring, because the listener tries to return only the gist of the thoughts and feelings they're getting - adding or subtracting nothing.

  What Does Empathic Listening Sound Like?

  • "So you think that..."

  • "What you need now is..."

  • "You're anxious about..."

  • "Seems you're unsure of..."

  • "Wow! Really confusing (to you) !"

  • "You're really feeling..."

  • "You were frustrated enough to chew rocks..."

  • "You needed validation, not questions!"

  • "It seemed to you that..."

  • "...Pretty tough (for you), huh."

  • "Really mystifying..." (to you)..."

  • "You were furious with me then!"

  • "Miraculous!" (you thought)

  • "So you felt you were up against..."

  • "They totally missed your point!"

  • "Now you look really ___________."

  • "You don't need to speak now..."

       Note the absence of questions and our favorite pronoun "I." "You're wondering about..." is probably a more effective empathic listening reflection than "I think you're wondering about..." because it's briefer, and focuses on your partner - not wonderful you.


      You say "I've never heard of this skill before." I say "It's new to you."

      You say "I doubt I can remember to use this with my Father." I say "You feel you may be intimidated or distracted by him." (A statement, not a question).

      You say "I'm really worried that Rosa's is experimenting with drugs." I say "You distrust your child's judgment about using chemicals."

      You say "I'm nervous and excited about my new job!" I say "You're feeling several things at once."

      You say "I have HAD it with my wife's interrupting me!" I say "You're so frustrated, you've reached your limit."

      You say "I never know what you're thinking."  I say "You wish I was more self-disclosing."

      Notice how brief "I" am, and that I'm trying to acknowledge the theme of what you're saying without questioning, lecturing, defending, advising, or refocusing on me.

      Reflect on how you would nor3mally respond to each of these comments from another person.

     Why Use This Skill?

       Sincere (vs. manipulative or dutiful) empathic listening is a win-win skill: each person is more apt to get their current communiction needs met. It benefits everyone!

  • Listening empathically signals your respectful, non-critical interest in the speaker. S/He feels respected by you, so...

  • The speaker is more apt to keep talking, vs. defending, blaming, shutting down, or withdrawing. This can build trust, intimacy, and relationships, over time. And...

  • The speaker may be more willing to listen well to you... later!

  • Unlike saying "I hear you" and "I understand," empathic listening demonstrates whether you comprehend what the speaker thinks, feels, and needs. This...

  • Minimizes misunderstandings. At the same time, listening empathically...

  • May help the speaker clarify their ideas, emotions, and needs, as they hear your periodic non-judgmental summaries.

  • Best of all, by patiently helping your partner lower their E(motion) level "below their ears," you make win-win problem-solving possible. If you try to vent or problem-solve when your partner's E-level is "above their ears," s/he probably can't hear you well or at all. Does this match your experience?

     When to Listen Empathically

          Until it becomes a habit, consciously choose to use this skill when …

  • Your true Self is solidly guiding your other subselves; and...

  • You genuinely feel you and your communication partner are equals in human worth and dignity. The alternatives are feeling superior or inferior to them;  and when...

  • You're genuinely (vs. dutifully, "sort of," or strategically) interested in your partner, and…

  • You're not too distracted to focus on them now; and specially when …

  • Your partner's E(motion)-level is "above their ears" - i.e. when s/he's very emotional about something and can't really hear you for the moment. Noticing if your and/or a partner's E-level is "above or below their ears" is one focus of communication awareness.

       When you don't meet these five conditions, try to free your Self (capital "S") to guide you, and patiently use all seven communication skills to get your mutual needs met.

    Popular Alternatives

    When people aren't aware of their option to listen empathically and/or they are controlled by a well-meaning false self, they usually...














Tune out


Play "Yes, but..."




Change the subject

Do two things at once

       Recall a time you needed to vent (be empathically heard), and got one or more of these responses. How did that feel to you? What did you do? All these responses can imply an insulting "I'm 1-up" attitude to the speaker: "My current needs are more important to me than yours." Without awareness of your and a partner's current communication needs, it's easy to slip into one of these ineffective responses - specially if a false self controls you!.

      For ways to respond effectively to someone who's not hearing you, see this after you finish this article.

Reality Check

      See how you feel about empathic listening now: T = true; F = false; and ? = "I'm not sure," or "It depends on (what?)"

I can name and describe the seven communication skills out loud now. (T  F  ?)

I can clearly describe to an average pre-teen: (a) empathy, (b) empathic listening, (c) E-levels (d) how this skill differs from "regular listening." (T  F  ?)

I can tell when someone's E-level is "above their ears."  (T  F  ?)

I'm clear now on when to listen empathically. (T  F  ?)

I can describe the key benefits of using this skill. (T  F  ?)

I can describe the difference between interrupting and interjecting now.  (T  F  ?)

I know which alternatives to empathic listening I usually use.  (T  F  ?)

I'm motivated to develop my empathic-listening skill now (a) at home and (b) at work or school (T  F  ?)

I'm usually comfortable (a) giving and (b) asking for hearing checks in key situations (T  F  ?)

I understand that listening empathically does not mean I agree with the speaker (tho I may)   (T  F  ?)

The kids in my life know how, when, and why to use empathic listening  (T  F  ?)

I accept the idea that normal people's personalities (like mine) are composed of talented subselves.  (T  F  ?)  If not, read this and try this safe, interesting exercise after you finish this article.

My true Self is responding to this reality check now. If not, who is?

+ + +

      Note this interesting item from Yahoo online news, 8/7/05:

The Daily Mail, quoting findings published in the specialist magazine NeuroImage, said researchers at Sheffield university in northern England discovered startling differences in the way the brain responds to male and female sounds.

Men deciphered female voices using the auditory part of the brain that processes music, while male voices engaged a simpler mechanism, it said.

The Mail quoted researcher Michael Hunter as saying, "The female voice is actually more complex than the male voice, due to differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between men and women, and also due to women having greater natural 'melody' in their voices.

"This causes a more complex range of sound frequencies than in a male voice."

The findings may help explain why people suffering hallucinations usually hear male voices, the report added, as the brain may find it much harder to conjure up a false female voice accurately than a false male voice.

      Have you ever noticed the gender of each of your inner voices (active subselves)?


      This is one of a series of Lesson-2 Web articles on how to communicate effectively. It outlines the powerful skill of empathic listening - "hearing with your heart." The article proposes the benefits of this skill, how to do it, requisites for using it, several examples, and when to use it.

       Empathic listening is essential for effective assertion and problem solving skills. It works with your personality subselves as well as with kids and adults. It's easiest to use when your true Self is guiding your personality.  

+ + +

Continue with this two-person listening practice, and/or keep studying and applying Lesson 2 communication basics and skills. Note - my practical guidebook Satisfactions - 7 relation skills you need to know (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates all the Lesson-2 Web articles and worksheets.

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