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Strategies for Empathetic Listening

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning to be an empathetic listener can be so important in many different relationships and professional situations. This lesson offers some specific strategies that are associated with empathetic listening.

About Empathetic Listening

As a social worker, Alison knows that her clients rely on her for many different things. She supports them, helps them make plans and arrangements, and teaches them particular life skills.

Alison considers the most important aspect of her job to be listening, however. She knows that empathetic listening in particular makes her a strong social worker, and she applies the same listening approach in many of her personal relationships as well.

Empathetic listening means attending to the speaker with compassion and understanding, being fully present, and putting the speaker's needs before your own. Over time, Alison has internalized many helpful strategies for empathetic listening.

The Role of Body Language

First of all, Alison knows that although the things she says in response will be important, body language, or how she positions herself physically in relation to the speaker, makes a big difference in her capacity to convey empathy as she listens.

Body language involves many different components. Typically, an empathetic listener:

  • Maintains eye contact with the speaker whenever possible but also attends to the speaker's desire to look away when relevant.
  • Leans in toward the speaker but maintains an appropriate physical distance so as not to generate discomfort.
  • Keeps an open and relaxed stance with arms open and an absence of physical tension.
  • Follows the speaker's cues in terms of facial expressions.
  • Mirrors, or takes cues from and sometimes repeats, the speaker's own body language and facial expressions, though not mockingly.

Leaning in toward another person as you listen shows that you care.
Leaning in toward another person as you listen shows that you care.

Restatement and Reflection

Another aspect of empathetic listening that Alison knows can make a difference has to do with restatement, or how she rephrases what the speaker has said.

For example, when a client tells Alison, ''I am so stressed out about making rent this month,'' Alison might say back to him, ''You are feeling really stressed out.'' This shows the speaker that she has listened and really heard what he said, and it can make the speaker feel supported and heard as he moves forward with his communication.

Part of restatement is also reflection of the speaker's own language back to him or her. When a close friend tells Alison, ''My sister is so hateful,'' Alison picks up on the speaker's own words and says, ''What is she doing that seems hateful?'' As with restatement, reflection shows the speaker that her own language is being taken seriously and that Alison is willing to see things in her terms.

Perspective Taking

When Alison works on empathetic listening, she knows that it is also her job to make some specific internal efforts. Particularly, she knows that she should work to see things from the speaker's perspective. She works hard to put herself in her speaker's shoes, and this is a big part of empathy.

This is particularly important and challenging when Alison is working with someone who is very different from herself. For example, Alison grows frustrated with one of her clients who keeps using drugs. The only way Alison can listen empathetically is if, before meeting with this client, she takes some time to shut her eyes and imagine how the client feels and what she goes through on a daily basis.

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