3 tips for listening empathetically

Start with yourself

To become an empathetic listener, you have to focus on the person who is talking, and you need to be able to put aside things you yourself are pondering over for a little while. Listening empathetically to yourself can be a first step to listening to someone else. Start by asking yourself “how am I feeling today?” and take a minute to feel the answer. Be honest with yourself and listen to your body and mind. If something feels wrong or wonky, take it seriously and think about how to help yourself. Maybe you need to take a few deep breaths or have a meeting-free day to catch up on work. If you’re just in a bit of a bad mood and don’t really have the ability to empathize with someone else, it’s okay to ask to listen at another time when you can give more of your energy. It is of course okay to take the time to listen to someone if you yourself are not completely balanced, but then you have made an active decision to put it aside and focus on the person you are listening to.

Listen to understand

Listening is in short supply, you often listen only to answer, not to fully understand. But honestly, you don’t listen very well if you’re trying to think of an answer or a solution to a problem at the same time.

Therefore, stop and focus on understanding the person who is telling you something most likely needs to vent something and may not even want you to come up with a solution. Give the person space to think, it is not dangerous to remain silent and wait for a possible continuation as it may lead to the person sharing additional thoughts and reflections.

Summarize and ask questions

If appropriate, you can help by summarizing what the person said or by asking questions.

A summary could be: 

I hear you saying you get frustrated when X does Y, am I understanding you correctly?

And a question to ask might be:

If it was up to you, what would a solution look like?

Use summarization and questions to show that you are listening and to help the person think in a solution-focused way. Depending on the situation and who is asking, of course you can share your thoughts and suggestions, but be careful not to make it sound like it’s the only solution or the truth, remember that you may not have all the information.

Useful at work and in your personal life

Regardless of whether you are a leader, colleague, friend or family member, you can use the tips above. And if you are a leader, there are more tips here on how you can help employees through empathic listening (in Swedish).

And a last piece of advice, don’t ask how someone is doing without having time to listen to the answer!

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