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Empathic Listening: Listening First Aid

The Panama Canal may serve as an adequate analogy for the role of effective listening

skills. As a
youth, I traversed the canal several times as we sailed in a freight ship from the port of

Valparaiso in Chile,
to New York. Massive lock gates are utilized to manage the water levels in the canal, so

that ships can
move from one direction to another. The water level behind one set of closed locks can be

much higher
than that of the next compartment through which a ship will travel.

We can compare this scene to the state of mind of an individual suffering from

deep emotional
wounds, or involved in a serious interpersonal conflict. With disparate water levels there

is a buildup of
pressure behind the closed locks. If one where to open these lock gates, the flow would be

mostly unidirectional.
Likewise, a party who is holding in her emotions needs a release. Such an individual is

unlikely to (1) think
clearly about the challenge or (2) be receptive to outside input from another.

The role of the listener or helper is to allow such an individual to open the lock gates.

When he does,
the water gushes out. During this venting process, there is still too much pressure for a

person to consider
other perspectives. Only when the water level has leveled off between the two compartments,

does the water
begin to flow evenly back and forth. The role of the listener is to help empty the

large reservoirs
of emotion, anger, stress, frustration and other negative feelings until the individual can

see more clearly.
Not until then, can a party consider the needs of the other. Perhaps we can think of it as

listening first aid.

At one enterprise, I had just been introduced, by the proprietor, to one of the parties

involved in a conflict where I would be the mediator. (Rather than bringing both of these

individuals together immediately, I instead met with each separately in a pre-caucus.) As

soon as the owner left us alone, the individual broke into tears. A similar situation took

place at a different enterprise, where one of the managers began to cry, ostensibly because

of other issues pressing heavily upon him. Had these men come immediately into a joint

meeting with their respective contenders, their feelings of vulnerability might just as

easily have turned into anger and defensiveness.

In another organization, I was informed that the pre-caucus would be quite brief, as the

person I was about to listen to was not a man of many words. Yet this individual spoke to me

for almost two hours. By the time we finished, he felt understood and had gained confidence.

During the joint session, this same employee was able to laugh when it was appropriate. I

have found that these “silent types” will often open up when there is someone who will truly


The process of listening so others will talk is called empathic listening.

Empathy, according to some dictionary definitions, means to put
oneself in a position to understand another person. Certainly, this is an aspect of empathy.

We prefer to
define empathy, however, as it is
often used in psychology: the process of attending to another so the individual feels heard

in a non-judgmental
way. Empathic listening requires that we accompany a person in her moment of sadness,

self-discovery, challenge
(or even great joy!). This approach to listening was developed by Carl Rogers, author of
Client-Centered Therapy.[1] Rogers applied
the method to therapeutic as well as human resource management skills. When an individual

understood, an enormous emotional burden is lifted; stress and defensiveness are reduced;

clarity increases.

Listening Skills in Interpersonal


We spend a large portion of our waking hours conversing and listening. When two friends

or colleagues have an engaging dialogue, they will often compete to speak and share ideas.

Certainly, listening skills play an important role is such stimulating exchanges. When it

comes to empathic listening, we do not vie to be heard, nor do we take turns speaking.

Rather, we are there to motivate and cheer the other person on.

Empathic listening skills require a different subset of proficiencies than conversing,

and it is certainly an acquired skill. Many individuals, at first, find the process somewhat

uncomfortable. Furthermore, people are often surprised at the exertion required to become a

competent listener. Once the skill is attained, there is nothing automatic about it. In

order to truly listen, we must set aside sufficient time to do so. Perhaps the root of the

challenge lies here. People frequently loose patience when listening to another’s problem.

Empathic listening is incompatible with being in a hurry, or with the fast paced world

around us. Such careful listening requires that we, at least for the moment, place time on

slow motion and suspend our own thoughts and needs. Clearly, there are no shortcuts to

empathic listening.

Some of the dialogues in this paper are videotape transcripts made possible by generous

volunteers. It is my goal to give life to some of these clips, so as to better illustrate

what it means to indeed listen empathetically.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to further explicate and describe empathic listening,

as well as some of the skill subsets involved. We challenge the reader to temporarily put

aside any preconceived notions about effective listening. In order to more clearly

illustrate empathic listening, we will portray both positive and negative examples.

Effective listening and attending skills can be applied to all of our interpersonal and

business relationships. We will become more effective listeners as we practice at home, in

our business dealings, and in other circles. One of the greatest gifts we can give another

is that of truly listening.

Different approaches to listening

There are different approaches to providing assistance. One helping model involves a

three-step process: 1) attentive listening, 2) asking effective diagnostic questions, and 3)

offering a prescription, or solution. Slowly, or sometimes quite abruptly, people move from

listening to prescribing. It is not uncommon, under some circumstances, for a person to

focus on the third of these steps: offering advice (sometimes even when none is sought). In

other situations, individuals may utilize the first two steps. Perhaps most uncommon is an

emphasis on listening alone.

You can probably imagine situations where each of these approaches may make sense. When

there is little time, or in dangerous situations, people may offer advice even when they

were not asked. For matters of a technical (or medical) nature, the three-way process of

listening, diagnosing, and prescribing is often preferable. After prescribing, it is helpful

to take a step back and determine how the individual feels about the proposed solution. A

related approach involves going through the first two steps and then involving the troubled

person in examining alternative solutions. Finally, for more personal matters, where the

solution is owned by the individual facing the challenge, a listening approach is most

advantageous. This is where empathic listening fits in. Let us consider these phases in

reverse order.


The majority of individuals, while they may fully begin with intentions of listening,

often quickly transition into the diagnostic and
prescriptive phases. People are accustomed to solving problems and often listen with this

frame of mind. Others, instead, focus on sympathy.
Sharing a story of how we had to face a similar challenge is not much better. Nor is being

quiet so a person will hurry up and finish.
None of these are helpful responses to venting. Each reflects, among other things, a certain

amount of impatience.
When people are not listening we can often see it in their body language: “The automatic

smile, the hit-and-run question, the restless look
in their eyes when we start to talk. [2]

It seems easier to solve other people’s problems rather than our own. Individuals

habitually say, “If I were in your position, I would do such and such.” Perhaps. Maybe we

would have solved the dilemma had we been in her place. Different personality types

certainly approach specific challenges in predictable ways, with likewise foreseeable

results. For instance, some would not dream of confronting a friend, but instead would let

an irritation fester inside. Others might have trouble keeping their opinions to themselves.

Have you noticed that some of your acquaintances seem to repeatedly fall into the same

types of predicaments, giving the impression they did not learn from the last episode? Each

of us has different personality traits and skill sets that permit us to solve some

challenges easier than others.

Occasionally, of course, we think that we would have solved a person’s dilemma, had we

had the chance to do so. Instead, when we find ourselves in the same predicament, we often

feel just as unsure about how to proceed.

On the way home from a father-daughter date, I asked one of my daughters if I could give

her some free advice. “I certainly don’t plan to pay for it,” she quipped. On another

occasion, another young woman came to see me. Sofía could not perceive how giving the cold

shoulder to Patricia—who had been her best friend at the university—was not only a cause of

pain to the latter, but also a way to further escalate the growing conflict between the two.

“I no longer speak to Patricia when I see her,” Sofía began. “Her cold attitude toward me

really hurts. She never greets me, and that hurts. She used to be very kind. But you know,

now, when she tries to come over and speak to me I pretend I haven’t noticed her and look


“How do you expect your friend to act in a warm way toward you if you give her the cold

shoulder when she tries to speak to you?” I inquired, stating the obvious.

I should have instead kept that comment to myself. Sofía was upset by my counsel and

avoided me for some time. A few weeks later she came to see me again. This time I listened

empathically. It meant not stating the obvious, but rather, being attentive while Sofía

described, in full detail, the ache she was feeling, the history of the conflict, her

suffering and hopes. Sofía felt heard and was able to take some preliminary steps towards

resolving her challenge.

Our effectiveness as a listener is often lost if we solve the problem before the person

we are attempting to help does. Some try unsuccessfully to disguise their advice-giving

tactics through such questions as, “Don’t you think …?” or, “Have you tried …?”

Aaliyah is very concerned about her grown daughter, and has been openly disclosing her

worries with her friend, Shanise. Let us listen in on their conversation.

“These are the problems I have with my daughter,” Aaliyah shares, anguish punctuating

each word. “I want to seek her out, try and speak with her, try and have her understand, but

she does not mind me. [Pause] I simply don’t know what to do, I feel incapable of helping


“If you would get her professional help, would she go?” Shanise proposes.

“Hmm. Eh. [Pause] As I was telling you, she doesn’t mind me. When I try and speak to her,

give her advice, then she… changes topics. That is the problem I have, that I seek her out

but she does not mind me.” Aaliyah insists.

Aaliyah considers Shanise’s contribution a distraction, and momentarily looses track of

what she was saying. Aaliyah, however, takes control of the conversation once again. Because

Shanise has been showing empathy to this point, Aaliyah forgives the interruption.

There will be times when people seem to be asking for a solution, such as Aaliyah’s

comment, “I simply don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they will even ask for advice, “What

should I do?” The listener ought not to rush in with a prescription. It is worthwhile, at

least, to say something like, “You are unsure as to how to proceed.” If the person says

something like, “Exactly!” and continues to speak, we know we have hit the mark. If instead,

the individual continues to ask for suggestions, we can help them explore options.

In a listening skills workshop, John, one of the participants, had shared some concerns

facing his enterprise: “Our top supervisor seems quite unsure as to how to proceed with such

a delicate issue,” John explained. “He simply does not know what to do about these two guys

who will not speak to each other.” After a while, I stopped the role-play to give the

listener some ideas on how to keep John talking. John interrupted to say that he did not

want to play the listening game—he simply wanted a solution.

This was an ideal opportunity to illustrate some vital points. When workshop participants

listen to people with real hardships, everything they have learned so far often flies out

the window. Rather than analyze the quality of the listening, participants are all too often

ready to suggest additional solutions. It is not difficult to obtain “three opinions out of

two persons!”

Seminar participants were permitted to go around the table prescribing solutions. But not

before being warned that they were entering the prescribe phase, which I have labeled red,

for danger. Suggestions started flying.

“Obviously, John,” the first participant began, “you must insist upon having the

supervisor speak with both individuals.”

“What I would do instead,” another piped in, “would be to… ”

It soon became clear that despite John’s request for a ready made solution, these

suggestions were irritating him. John admitted that he would have preferred to continue to

think aloud with the support of the class participants.

Sympathy is quite different than empathy. It often springs more from our desire for

normality, than for helping someone.
One of my favorite illustrations comes from Alfred Benjamin: “When Lucy said, ‘I’ll never

get married now that I’m [disabled],’ what did you do?
You know you felt terrible; you felt that the whole world had caved in on her. But what did

you say? What did you show?” [3] If Lucy was your seventeen year old daughter, niece, or younger

sister—I often ask—what would you like to say to her? Some of the most frequent
responses include:

  • Your internal beauty is more
    important than outward appearances.
  • I still find you beautiful.
  • If a young man cannot see
    your beauty, he is not worthy of you.
  • Modern medicine can work
    miracles and perhaps you can recover beyond expectation.

Alfred Benjamin continues, “Did you help her to bring it out; to say it, all of it; to

hear it and examine it? You almost said: ‘Don’t be foolish. You’re young and pretty and

smart, and who knows, perhaps…’ But you didn’t. You had said similar things to patients in

the hospital until you learned that it closed them off. So this time you simply looked at

her and weren’t afraid to feel what you both felt. Then you said, ‘You feel right now that

your whole life has been ruined by this accident.’ ‘That’s just it,’ she retorted, crying

bitterly. After awhile she continued talking. She was still [disabled], but you hadn’t

gotten in the way of her hating it and confronting it. [3]

In my opinion, it is not about withholding comments about the beauty of the young lady,

or about how much we care about her. Many of these comments may be shared, but later, after

Lucy feels truly heard and does not have more to say herself.

There are numerous ways we discount the needs of others, even when we think we are being

good listeners. For instance, we may attempt to share our own story of loss, disappointment,

or of success, before the individual has had the opportunity to be heard in his story. We

may feel that sharing our own story is proof that we are listening, but instead, the other

person feels we have stolen the show. [4]Once again, this is not to say that there is

no room to share our story with others, but rather, we should hear them out first.

Some persons confuse empathic listening with being silent. First attempts to listen

empathically are often betrayed by facial and body language that say “be quiet so I can give

you advice.” Have you ever tried to speak to someone who is silent and gives no indication

of what he is thinking? We do not know if the person has lost interest or is judging us.

When people have deep sentiments to share, rarely do they expose their vulnerability by

getting to the point right away. Ordinarily, the topic is examined through increasingly

constricting circles. We may also compare it to an iceberg. Only an eighth protrudes to the

surface while the rest remains submerged—buried—under the surface of the ocean. When someone

says, “I am worried because…” and another responds, “Don’t worry so much,” the worried

person does not cease to be concerned. Rather, it becomes clear that the apprehension cannot

be safely shared with this individual. Likewise, when a person proceeds to give a suggestion

before understanding the situation, individuals will frequently pretend to go along with the

proposal simply to get rid of the problem solver.


the greatest danger with the process of diagnosing is the natural tendency to
move from listening, to diagnosing, to prescribing. Rarely do people reverse
the process and return to listening after entering the diagnostic phase. It is
much more likely that they will move on to prescribe mode. A plus of the
diagnostic process, is that the listener can, at least at the superficial
level, gain a better idea of what the challenge entails.

We do
not wish to imply that the diagnostic process is useless. All too often people
give too little attention to diagnosis, but in the process of empathic
listening, the diagnosis needs to be carried out by each party, rather than the
mediator. An emphasis on diagnostics betrays a perspective in which the
listener is to provide wisdom, understanding, and solutions.

individuals listen and ask questions with the idea of confirming their own
observations. A much more effective method is to be moved by a spirit of
curiosity. Such an approach has been called a stance of “deliberate ignorance.”
Instead of assuming that a certain experience is the same as another we have
lived or heard of in the past, we listen with interest and curiosity.
Inquisitive listeners “never assume that they understand the meaning of an
action, and event, or a word.” [5]

Let us
return to the conversation between Aaliyah and Shanise.

husband does not help me resolve my problem with my daughter,” Aaliyah laments.

would he like you to do? Not to have any contact with her?” Shanise asks a
couple of investigative questions.

we quarrel a lot because I tell him I’m a mother. [Pause] And he does not feel
what I feel. And he does not want me to seek her out because, after all, she
does not listen, and the situation will not improve. But I always seek her out.
[Long pause] And I told her not to be running about… to come to my home, but
she will not, she says that…,” Aaliyah continues her story, a narrative born of
a mother’s pain.

questions have helped Shanise understand the situation a bit better. Observe,
however, that Aaliyah, after answering, returns to speak about that which hurts
her the most, her inability to help her daughter.

we give another example of an investigative question. Once again, we pick up in
the middle of a conversation:

“I have
that problem with one of our engineers,” says Raymond.

“In the
morning or afternoon?” inquires Paul.

“I have
been wondering if there is a pattern indeed… if this happens on Mondays, or if
there is anything predictable in all of this,” Raymond answers. “The truth is
that I have not found anything obvious that stands out.”

you ever sat down with him and spoken about your concern?” Paul asks.

conversation follows a pattern. Paul asks a question and Raymond answers and
then waits for Paul’s next inquiry. Pauses become an excuse to interrupt. Paul
has control over the conversation and it is uncertain as to whether he will
take it in the right direction. While Raymond may feel heard, to a certain
extent, such comprehension tends to be somewhat superficial. Raymond is not
working as hard as he could and expects an answer to his problems. Upon
observing Raymond, one gets the idea that he is saying, “Go ahead, be my guest,
see if you can solve this mess! I sure haven’t been able to.”

are other types of questions, such as those that promote the talking about
feelings. Manuel tells his wife, Magdalena, that despite the recognition that
his work has received in New York, he is
unsure as to whether they should remain in the USA
or return to their native Argentina.
While Magdalena has heard her husband in the
past, her focus here has been to let her husband vent and find clarity to his
own thinking:

is the problem, to stay or return to Argentina?” Manuel sighs.

is it that you really miss from Argentina?”
Magdalena inquires.

that is what we were talking about recently… one misses the family… family
relations… Sundays with the extended family and the kids… but I also miss my
friends. I had a huge group of friends…,” Manuel continues sharing his

question has permitted Manuel to explain what he truly feels. Other such
questions could include, “How do you feel when that happens?” “What are you
feeling at this moment?” We will generally note quite a different expression
coming from a person who is answering affect-type questions. Another inquiry
that gives the client a chance to expand is, “What, then, do you plan on
doing?” Despite the merits of such a probe, it is best to leave it towards the
end of the conversation. Unless, of course, it is asked in a much less abrupt
way, such as, “What options are you leaning toward and which ones do you like
the least?”

When a
question is asked to help someone take control of the conversation, I like the
expression, “prime the pump.” These old fashioned water pumps functioned
through a lever and a vacuum. One needed quite a bit of effort to make them
start pumping water, but much less once the water started flowing.
Prime-the-pump type questions are especially useful to help the person with the

  • Start speaking.
  • Take back control over the conversation,
    especially after an interruption (e.g., after the conversation stops when a
    third person momentarily walks into the room; the conversation is being renewed
    after a few days; or when the listener realizes he has interrupted or taken an
    overly directive approach to listening).

are several types of questions, comments, or gestures that can work under the
prime the pump category. These may include, for example:

  • Investigative questions.
  • Analytical comments.
  • Summary of what has been
  • An invitation for the person
    to say more.
  • Body language that shows
  • Empathic comments.



mother tells of an experience she had with her young child: “Years ago one of
our daughters asked me to come outside and play tetherball with her. She told
me to sit down and watch as she hit over and over again a ball on a rope that
wound itself around a pole. After watching several windings I asked what my
part was in the game, and she said, ‘Oh, Mom, you say, Good job, good job,” every time the
ball goes around the pole.’” [6]This is, essentially, the role of empathic
listening, that of accompanying another person and celebrating together the
fact that the other can begin to unpack and analyze the challenges being faced.
In the child’s game, success is measured by the ability to have the ball and
its cord wrap around the post. In empathic listening, success is measured by
the ability to unpack the often pain-soaked narrative and let it float to the

shall attempt to look, in a more detailed way, at how to accompany without
interfering. There is a marvelously therapeutic power in the ability to think
aloud and share a challenge with someone who will listen.

A good
listener has sufficient confidence in himself to be able to listen to others
without fear. In contrast to a diagnostic approach to helping, the listener:

  • Takes an empathic posture (motivates the

    to speak without feeling judged).

  • Does not use pauses as an excuse to


  • Permits the speaker to direct the


this process the individual—if we earn her confidence—begins to speak more, to
control the direction of the topic, to increase self understanding (by first
reviewing that which is known and later by digging deeper), to consider
possible options, and often, by choosing a possible outcome. We will consider
some specific tactics that will help us accomplish these goals. A warning is in
order. We must keep in mind that empathic listening is dynamic. It is not
sufficient to have an interest in another, but we must also show it. And it is
not sufficient to show an interest, we must feel it. The person being heard
immediately notices if we get bored, seem distracted, or become upset.

In the
words of Alfred Benjamin, “Genuine listening is hard work; there is little
about it that is mechanical… We hear with our ears, but we listen with our eyes
and mind and heart and skin and guts as well.” [7]Let us look at some specific
techniques that are helpful.

Dangling questions

incomplete question has the advantage of leaving much in the air and giving the
client control over the direction he wishes to go. Let us return to our
Argentine couple.

the children… miss…?” Magdalena asks,
prolonging the word miss.

the children miss… much, especially the… affection of the grandmothers,
cousins, undoubtedly they miss the whole family structure…” Manuel explains and
continues to uncover the issues that are troubling him.

Indications that we want to know more

are many ways we can signal an interest in listening and learning more. One of
the most typical is to simply say, “Tell me more.” We could also say something
like, “How interesting!” or simply, “Interesting.” What is important in all
this is that we are not stuck with one monotonous and irritating technique.

Repeating a phrase or key word

One of
the most important empathic listening techniques is to let the client know we
are accompanying him by repeating, from time to time, one word, or a few, in
the same tone of voice that he has used. Aaliyah continues to share with
Shanise the pain she is feeling because of her daughter.

she moved and now lives in a nearby town… [Aaliyah raises her left hand while
she speaks and indicates the direction, and then pauses]. With a friend…”

Shanise repeats.

but she does not last long because as she does not work and she won’t be able
to simply live there for free,” Aaliyah continues. “She must contribute
something, too.”

empathic expressions or key words, contribute to the process without overly
interrupting. There are times when the speaker may leave the thought process to
reflect on the words the listener has repeated. But normally this happens in a
very natural fashion that allows for fluidity. The speaker has the option of
continuing what he is saying or further reflecting on the comment. Let us look
at this same technique in the Argentine couple.

“It is
true that… while… the cost of education in this country is high… [pause], yet
the possibilities are infinite,” Manuel declares.

Magdalena pronounces the word using the same
tone that her husband had used.

infinite in the sense that if one can provide the support for the children and
motivate them to study…” Manuel continues to develop his thinking.

have accused Carl Rogers of being directive. According to the critics, these
empathic responses reward the speaker for focusing on the topics the listener
wants him to focus on, and thus it is the listener who directs the
conversation. This is not the case. When a person is interrupted by an empathic
listener—with an observation or comment that is distracting—the speaker makes
it clear that this was an interruption. Unless, the interruption constitutes a
more serious breach of trust, the party continues to speak and control the

a young African-American professional, is telling Susan, that her best friend,
Palad, is mad at her because her fiancé is Caucasian. The conversation is
proceeding normally, until Susan asks a question that distracts Mekelle.

friend Palad… it bothers me—as bright and perceptive as he is—that he cannot
see that in reality… if one were to educate more people,” Mekelle is expressing
her frustration.

Susan adds, following the conversation.

he would not feel the way he feels, you understand?” Mekelle asks a question
that rather means, “Are you listening to me? Are you following my logic?”

is Palad from?” Susan interrupts. The question has no relationship to the pain
that Mekelle is feeling at the moment. People often take back control of a
conversation with the use of the word “but,” as we see below.

is from Florida, he has lived several years in
California and he is now living in Oregon,” Mekelle
answers. “But… [having lost track of where she was, Mekelle seems somewhat
distracted and moves her hand, as if to say, lets get back to the topic, and
continues] but… and it is only about Caucasian people, he only has problems
with Caucasian people, [Mekelle smiles] if the person was from any other race
it would not matter, but when it is a matter of a Caucasian person…”

Empathic sayings

empathic saying is a longer comment, of a reflective type, given to let someone
know we are following them. We might say something like, “at this moment you
feel terrible,” or, “I can see you are suffering.” These expressions can be
very potent but only if used sparingly, and certainly not in a repetitive
fashion. Here is an example of an empathic saying used properly:

troubled youth approached me one day. “I hate life, it has treated me
terribly,” he said. The loud, bitter comment filled the room. Oh, how I wanted
to moralize and tell him that his own actions had placed him in the present
predicament. But instead, I calmly stated, a la Rogers, “Right now, you are
life.” I was trying to truly comprehend and letting him know that
I was listening.

yes,” he continued, but the anger reduced enormously, “life right now is
terrible….” With every exchange the voice tension and loudness subsided. This
same youth soon recognized that he was not in the right path without my having
to say it.

contrast, I observed a speaker—a therapist by training—who freely used the
line, “I can see you are hurting.” I was the conference interpreter and was in
a position to observe the audience. An older man told his heartbreaking
anecdote, and the speaker used his line at what seemed the perfect moment. The
participant stopped talking and leaned back. I could see in his eyes and body
posture that he had felt empathy from the therapist. The man had been touched
and now felt understood. I was impressed. It seemed to me, however, that with
each subsequent use of “I can see you are hurting,” the catchy phrase became
increasingly artificial. The magic was gone. Fewer people were convinced of its
sincerity and the line soon meant “be quiet, I want to move on with my talk.”
The process had become mechanical and empty, rather than based on true empathy.

does one know if the listening was empathic? Gerald Egan says, “If the helper’s
empathic response is accurate, the client often tends to confirm its accuracy by
a nod or some other nonverbal cue or by a phrase such as ‘that’s right’ or
‘exactly.’ This is usually followed by a further, usually more specific,
elaboration of the problem situation.” [8] And when one is off the mark, sometimes they will
tell you, or just as likely, they will be quiet and avoid eye contact.

Empathic questions

contrast to diagnostic questions, especially those analytical in nature,
empathic questions go to the source of what the person is feeling. These questions are very powerful and less dangerous
because they promote talking, rather than silence (i.e., prime the pump
questions). Examples include, “What are you feeling at this moment?” Or,
without completing the phrase and stretching out the word feeling, “You are
fee-ling…?” The strength of empathic questions is that they help bring the pain
out to the surface, feelings that often may lie deeply hidden. Often, people
have been so preoccupied with analytical thinking, that they have not permitted
themselves to sufficiently examine their feelings.

Body language

One of
the best steps, in terms of body language, is to invite someone to take a seat,
if she has not done so already. By offering a seat we let her know that we are
willing to listen and ready to take the time to do so. That we are not going to
ration out the time.

who are very interested in what another is saying may, from time to time, lean
toward the speaker, and their interest is reflected in their faces, body
language, and tone of voice. We can signal with our head movement that we are
listening. But as with all of the techniques we have discussed, variety is
critical. Otherwise, if we keep mechanically shaking our head to let the person
know we are listening, we soon look like the bobble-head dogs that were often
seen in the back windows of cars.

If we
are truly interested in listening, our body language shows it. Our non-verbal
communication also betrays us when we get distracted. In a recent conversation
I had not yet said anything, but must have shown intentions of interrupting.
Before I could utter a word, the person speaking said, “Excuse me for
interrupting you, but…” and she continued relating her account. This happened
several times, proving what communication experts have told us all along:
individuals signal their intent to interrupt before doing so.

Respecting pauses

makes people uncomfortable. Yet, one of the most important empathic listening
skills is not interrupting pauses, or periods of silence. When a person pauses
she continues to think about the challenge. When we respect these pauses, by
not interrupting, we are in essence offering the person a psychological chair
to sit on; it is a way of saying “We are not going to abandon you.”

person who feels truly heard begins, also, to speak slower and to leave more
pauses. When an individual senses she will not be interrupted, she begins an
internal trajectory, every time deeper, wherein she begins to intensify the
process of self understanding and analytical thinking. Many listenerswho found it difficult enough to be patient when the
individual was speaking at a normal speed—finding it torturous to listen to
this slower pace. Yet, this is part of the gift of giving, in a listening or
helping stance.

long can you listen to a person and keep silence without getting nervous or
impatient, and interrupting? Four seconds? Eleven seconds? One minute? Ten
minutes? How long? When a party comes out of this pause, he will have often
undergone some serious reflective and analytical thinking.

A young
professional reported that she had put this advice to work. After a seminar she
called her boyfriend, who was experiencing some difficult challenges. “I had to
bite my lips several times,” she reported. “But I managed not to interrupt him.
After a long pause he asked me, ‘Are you there?’” The disadvantage of the phone
is that fewer empathic responses are available to the listener, as he could not
see the interest with which she had been listening. She responded, “Of course,
I am listening with much interest!” Once these words were pronounced, he
continued talking, this time with even more enthusiasm and penetration.

order to conclude this sub-section, I would like to share two more clips from
our African-American friend, Mekelle. The first one speaks of her desire to
make a decision and resolve her challenge. This comment comes after she has had
a long time to vent.

“It has
become clear that I must call Palad again and have another conversation with
him,” Mekelle resolved. “I have not decided… yet… when I will call him. [Pause]
Yeap… that is where I find myself at the moment… I
will probably find a moment to call him next week. I always like to plan this
type of thing. [Laughing] I am not ready to speak with him at this moment.”

is accompanying Mekelle, and laughs when she laughs. “Not at this moment…”

“Right. [Mekelle laughs] Perhaps I should call him some day
when I am mad. [Laughs some more and pauses] But… mm… it is beginning to weigh
on me… this lets me know I ought to call now.”

In the
second clip Mekelle speaks about the feelings of gratitude she is feeling for
having been heard.

really interesting thing… to me… I… generally… am not one to share my
feelings,” Mekelle clarifies. “I tend to keep these buried and let other people
tell me how they feel.”

Mmm,” Susan listens.

makes several false starts in terms of continuing with what is in her mind,
with several pauses in between. She finally speaks, “This whole process… of
realizing I am still mad at him… because I did not know I was still mad at him…
[pause] is very interesting… to me, that is. [Mekelle
once again attempts to speak between her own pauses, and finally speaks with
much strength, and drawing out the word mad each time she uses it] I ask
myself, ‘Why, exactly are you mad?’ You know? Should you be mad? You could be
disappointed… but mad! Especially since he did not do anything to you—by that I
mean that he did not use offensive language, he did not hit me—… [pause]. I feel he disappointed me… ‘How can you be so intelligent
and think like that?’”

A person who uses the empathic listening approach, in its
purity, will have to dedicate large blocks of time to it. Depending on the
trauma or situation involved, I have found that people can easily talk to you
between one or two hours if you will listen. Before concluding this paper, I
would like to share a few thoughts about reconciling empathic listening and our

empathic listening to our belief system

the years I have read numerous books about empathic listening, from a number of
authors. Some of its distinguished proponents suggest that there is no such
thing as absolute truth. My
challenge, however, was the need to reconcile such a stance with the incredibly
positive results obtained by the methodology. You see, I am a strong proponent
of the existence of an absolute truth; of right and wrong, and of good and

instance, Rogers
would not moralize to his clients, no matter how horrible a thing they said.
Nor—to his defense—did Rogers patronize people who felt troubled and tell them it was
normal to feel a certain way. When a client said she really hated her mother,
and would be glad to see her dead, Rogers
would listen. Soon, his client would say, well, actually I do not hate her
totally, I also really love her, and I would not want her to be dead. Through
the several transcripts provided by Rogers,
this pattern repeated itself over and over. Each time, the client seems to make
good decisions, backing away from hurtful, destructive approaches. [9]

From experience
in observing how poorly people listen, I suspect most individuals would benefit
from reading Rogers.
But returning to my dilemma, how could I reconcile my belief structure with
being a good listener? Or, how about those situations when someone is blind to
the most basic common sense? For instance, a person who says he is starving for
the affection of a family member or former friend, yet is doing everything in
his power to reject her?

months of reflection, I have arrived at these conclusions: (1) when people are
truly heard, they will often come to their own correct insights. But if their
assumptions are still faulty, (2) by the very process of truly listening, the
helper will earn the right to challenge blind spots. There will be moments when
the listener has the right—or, should we say obligation?—to speak her truth.

this listening model to work, it is necessary to have confidence in the
goodness of people. That individuals, when they have
had the opportunity to reflect and reconsider, will see the path that is
necessary to leave the darkness behind.

deposits, earned through the listening process, are required before the helper
earns the right to challenge an individual. When I have truly listened, then,
if it becomes necessary, I can calmly present concerns from my perspective.

all that has been said in this paper, there will be times when the mediator may
have incompatible values with those of one or more of the parties involved.
Helpers should not suggest that people violate their own principles or belief
systems, nor should anyone expect a helper to be amoral. If a friend tells you
he is thinking of being unfaithful to his wife, and if he does not reconsider
during the process of being heard, I think it would be a great fault on the
part of the listener to keep silent and not share his own feelings of
repugnance towards such a stance.

may be times, then, when the mediator or empathic listener may need to share
her value system with another. Often, people will seek your opinion because
they respect your values. One of the leading experts on empathic listening and
challenging, Gerald Egan, further suggests that living by a value system may
well be a pre-requisite to properly challenging others. [10]


the process of being heard empathically, the troubled individual will control
the direction, pace, and final destiny of the exploratory expedition. She will
be required to do most of the hard work. Yet, she will not be left alone during
this difficult voyage. Empathic listening permits those who own the challenge
to begin to hear themselves. As a result, they become
better equipped to solve their own difficulties. The empathic listening
approach helps the person being heard to sufficiently distance himself from the
challenge to see it with more clarity. There is great therapeutic value in
being able to think aloud and share a problem with someone who will listen.

good listener has enough confidence in himself to be able to listen to others
without fear.

Part of
being a good listener may require consciously fighting to keep an open mind and
avoid preconceived conclusions. A helper may want to continually assess her
listening style in a given situation. For instance, she may ask herself: Am I …

  • Allowing the person with the
    problem to do most of the talking?
  • Avoiding premature
    conclusions based on my life experiences?
  • Helping the individual to
    better understand himself?
  • Permitting the person to
    retain ownership of the challenge?
  • Showing the party that we are
    listening without judging?


1 Rogers, Carl R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

2 Nichols, M. P. (1995). The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve
Relationships (p. 111). New York, The Guilford City Press.

3 Benjamin, A. (1974). The Helping Interview (2nd Edition) (p. 21). Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company.

4 Nichols, M. P. (1995). The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve
Relationships New York, The Guilford City Press.

Winslade, J., and Monk,
G. (2000). Narrative Mediation: A New
Approach to Conflict Resolution (pp. 126-128). San Francisco Jossey-Bass

6 Gayle M. Clegg, “The Finished Story Ensign, May 2004, 14, 174th Annual
General Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Saturday
Morning Session, 3 April 2004.

7 Benjamin, A. (1974). Benjamin, A. (1974). The Helping Interview (2nd Edition) (p. 44). Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company.

8 Egan, Gerard. (1986The Skilled Helper, Systematic Approach to Effective Helping (3rd Edition),
Brooks/Cole Publishing Company: Monterey California,
pages 199-200

9 Rogers, Carl R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

10 Egan, Gerard. (1986The Skilled Helper, Systematic Approach to Effective Helping (3rd Edition),
Brooks/Cole Publishing Company: Monterey California,
pages 199-200


Gregorio Billikopf

Gregorio Billikopf is an emeritus Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California and a visiting professor of the Universidad de Chile. His research and teaching efforts have focused on organizational productivity (selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision) and interpersonal relations (interpersonal negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation).  MORE >

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