How to listen with empathy

In private as well as professional relationships empathy is a very effective means to establish connection between people and solve conflicts. It also helps people in emotional distress to relax and find clarity, it leads to inspiration for creative problem solving, and it can even heal old emotional wounds!

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The way I understand empathy, I learned it from non-violent communication (nvc) and its founder, Marshall Rosenberg.
I first met him at an introductory workshop about nvc in Munich, German. In front of a large room packed with audience I took up all my courage and asked Marshall personally if he would help me solve a conflict in my life by doing one of his empathic roleplays.

He agreed, and so I found myself on stage in a chair opposite to him. I was supposed to play the person with whom I had a problem, and he would play an empathic version of myself. I started and threw the the most hurtful sentences that I had heard at Marshall. The audience was roaring.
He did not even blink an eye and calmly said: “Well, it sounds like you’re sad because you’d like to have more contact with me!”
Out of nothing, I burst into tears. He had landed a direct hit. My whole aggressiveness was suddenly blown away. How the hell did he know? I would never have guessed THAT! How could all these attacks mean that this woman who I had difficulties with actually missed me?

Right there, I experienced the power of empathy myself. It changed my life. I needed a few days to get over the experience – in a positive sense 🙂

From then on, I wanted to be able to do what Marshall did, with the same ease and accuracy. Today, I would say he had the laserlike ability to penetrate all the layers of someone’s ego and see right to his core. And he saw something good in his core. He used to call it the force “that wants to contribute to life”. For him it was in everyone – even if hidden very far down!

Very briefly spoken empathy mainly consists of the second and third of the famous “four steps” of non-violent communication. Step two describes a person’s feelings, and step three identifies her needs.

When empathically listening to someone, I focus on asking about his feelings and needs in regard to a certain situation. I try to feel into the other one and then I check out whether  my impression is right.

An example:
Suppose a friend complains about her husband and says: “Oh man, I was out all night with him, and he only stared at his cell phone! He is totally antisocial!”
Empathic listening in this case could be questions like: “Are you sad about how things went (feeling)? You want more connection between the two, right?”

Let’s put this together to a quick guide for empathic listening:
1. Feel into the other person
2. Ask about her feelings
3. Ask about her needs

You don’t have to get the feeling and the need right. Just guess. What counts is your sincere intention to connect. Either you get a “Yes!” or a “No!”, and both is good. With a “no” in most cases the person tells you either what is really going on (e.g.: “No, I’m not sad, I’m disappointed!”), or you simply guess again.

It is also important that you don’t ask: “What are you feeling?” or “What do you need?”, but offer a specific feeling (“sad”, “angry”, “annoyed”, “frustrated”, “disappointed” etc.) and a specific need (“connection”, “community”, “belonging”, “appreciation”, “rest” etc.).
This makes it easier for the other person to get into contact with himself and keeps him from going into his head because he begins to think about what he might feel and need!

Basically, empathy is not difficult. What is often difficult though, is to stop falling back into our previous pattern of reaction to another’s emotional distress! The trick lies in just staying with the questions to resist the temptation to use one of the following things:
– Advice: “Do xyz!”
– Understanding: “I understand.” (I know this is supposed to be nice, but FEEL into it…does it really create connection?)
– Telling about yourself: “Oh yes, I know that, I had a very similar experience which was…!” (No! I know we all love speaking about ourselves, but right now the other needs your whole presence for herself. Please stay with her and don’t bring the focus to you!)
– Analysis: “This is the same pattern like with your father!”
– Feeling sorry: “Oh, that’s really bad! Poor you!”
– Know-it-all attitude: “I could have told you it would end like this!”

I’m not saying that all these things are “bad”. If you want to build a connection with someone and help him in an emotionally challenging situation though, then these strategies usually don’t serve the goal, because they draw attention away from where it is needed. Try out the difference!

And now the most important

The most important thing when giving empathy  is not getting the method right, but the inner attitude with which you meet the other.

This includes 5 things:
1. Non-judgment: Take to the other, as he is. Accept all his feelings and signal him to be no matter what emotional state it is and no matter what look like his thoughts.
(It is clear that you will be not always completely without judgment. But that doesn’t matter. Just be open for this, possibly with your judgment in addition to lie. Judgment not step into that, and not your behavior let him dictate!)
2. Benevolence: Believe that the others in the core is good. As Marshall always said: everyone wants to serve at any time always alive. Some people choose to just strategies that are painful for others, because they know no better. Be open to be sure that the good will show in the other, if he gets the opportunity, through his pain accompanied if someone else sees it as well. What do indeed! Keep active for the good intention in the other look. It’s there!
3. Connection first: Make the connection to the other person your top priority. Resist any temptation to want to convince him of something, to smuggle into advice in your conversation, or to want to have the conversation to a particular result. All of this would undermine the connection.Just be there for him!
4. Trust: Trust that the other knows what he needs and what is the solution to his situation. You do not have to tell him. In fact our solution proposals confuse others more often than that they help – unless unless the other asks.
Help him so, to find its own solution, and tell your opinion only when specifically prompted.
5. Listen to your inner voice: Exchanges with others are a dynamic process, and a tool out of a box is not always appropriate! Ask your intuition for help, to be as gentle as possible, and to be able to help the other as much as possible. And then trust yourself!

Thank you for reading this far! I am very happy about your interest in empathic listening, because I see it as making human interaction more beautiful, and I would like to contribute to that!

If you have any questions or comments, you can leave a message below or use our contact form!

I invite you to also read the related article: “Does empathic listening make a story true?

I wish you many moments of heart connection with empathic listening!

Kendra Gettel

P.S.: If you like this article, then share it but please via social media. Thank you!


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