Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening - ToolsHero

This article explains the Empathic Listening in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful communication skills tool.

What is Empathic Listening?

Empathy is the ability to imagine what someone else is feeling. Empathic listening is about really understanding the person who’s talking to you. That means it goes beyond active listening, for which the listener uses nods, listening posture and listening sounds like ‘yeah, yeah’ and ‘hmm’ to encourage the person speaking to continue talking. Empathic listening goes a step further. It’s not just listening, but actually hearing what is being said and understanding what the other is trying to say.

In addition to listening to the actual message, this method allows you to listen to the emotional undertone. This leads to a more intense contact between both people in a conversation. Empathic listening is not about both speakers having the same opinion. It’s very possible to have different opinions, but still understand why the other feels differently about a certain matter.

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How it works

There are different ways to give the person you’re speaking with the feeling that he’s being fully understood. First, the room in which the conversation is taking place has to be pleasant and comfortable. Possible disruptions should be avoided, for instance other people entering, phones ringing or other annoying sounds. As listener, by concentrating in advance on the conversation you’re going to have, you can clear your own mind. When the other arrives, it’s important that they feel comfortable right away. Pay attention to them, look them in the eyes and begin with a general question about for instance the weather or other small talk to set the mood. That’s also known as creating rapport.

Asking questions

It’s best to start the conversation with open and/or neutral questions. Every person criticises and judges, but for empathic listening, it’s important to avoid this as much as possible and listen without any judgement. The person speaking should not just have the feeling that he’s being understood; he also needs to feel safe and consider the person he’s speaking to, to be reliable.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to focus on the person speaking during the conversation, and don’t let yourself be distracted. A common pitfall is that the listener starts giving advice or sharing his opinion. Try not to do this and give the other the opportunity to tell his whole story. Especially advice can lead to resistance from the other interlocutor and even cause him to stop speaking spontaneously. Be sure to keep the goal of the conversation in mind.

Listening – Summarising – Follow-up (LSF)

A common way to achieve empathic listening is the LSF technique. It stands for Listening – Summarising – Follow-up (LSF).

By really listening to someone else and summarising in your mind what he’s saying, the listener is able to use paraphrasing to show the other that he’s heard what has been said. Paraphrasing is part of summarising; it’s aimed at one or several key words that accurately portray the story.

It can also have a powerful effect to repeat the words that the speaker has been using. By applying summaries again and again, the listener gets a clearer picture of what the other person is speaking about. This enables him to ask specific questions that follow up on the topic.

The LSF method is a cyclical process and continually repeats itself. Also acknowledge emotions you notice during the conversations as well as the other’s body language. For example: ‘I see this really affects you’ or ‘While you’re telling me this, I can still see how angry it makes you.

The power of silence

Occasionally, allowing silence in a conversation can be a good thing. That allows the listener to take in what has been said, and this helps him discover what the other is really trying to say. People often think that silences during a conversation are awkward, but they’re actually a functional way to help you understand the other interlocutor better.

Empathic Listening Advantages

Empathic Listening is not easy and it takes time and practice to master it. Being aware of the advantages of empathic listening make this listening technique a really worthwhile endeavour. On top of the fact that it improves the relationship between interlocutors, it will also have a positive effect on their cooperation. Their mutual respect and trust will increase, making them more loyal and helpful to each other. Using Empathic Listening in their daily lives helps people to become more compassionate towards each other and each other’s opinion. It makes them more patient and better able to think before bluntly sharing their opinion.


Empathic listening can be applied anywhere and any time. A manager conducting a performance appraisal with his employee would do well to ask him about his motivation or things that might be bothering him. Understanding the employee’s motivation enables the manager to work towards common goals and potential solutions. A management meeting is another good place to employ Empathic Listening and really listen to each other’s viewpoints and try to understand the others’ arguments. But it’s also a good tool to achieve proper cooperation and effective communication during face-to-face meetings between employees.

Empathic Listening is not easy because most people like to hear themselves talk and they find it difficult to concentrate on what someone else is saying and what someone else thinks. It’s about hearing ‘the message behind the message’. Everyone can learn this skill quite well, you simply need to practice it.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? How do you apply Empathic Listening in your daily communication? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are your success factors for good, effective and active listening?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Arnett, R. C., & Nakagawa, G. (1983). The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique. Communication Education, 32(4), 368-378.
  2. Brownell, J. (2015). Listening: Attitudes, principles, and skills. Routledge.
  3. Hybels, S. (2014). Communicating effectively. McGraw-Hill Education.
  4. Myers, S. (2000). Empathic listening: Reports on the experience of being heard. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 40(2), 148-173.

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