Being listened to is a need and a necessity, while knowing how to listen is a skill and a foundation of our social relationships. Although listening is a natural skill, it must be cultivated and developed. This fundamental ability to communicate with others is complementary to another one: empathy. In this article, we will look at why to use empathic listening, how to develop it and what empathy really means.  

Empathic listening: what is the point? 

Connecting with the other person, applying ourselves to hear what they are communicating to us, paying particular attention to what they are saying, this is the definition of listening. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine what they are feeling and thinking while maintaining an emotional distance from the other person. 

By cultivating your listening skills to make them empathetic, you will be able to build more relationships and strengthen your social relations. From a personal development perspective, this skill can help you evolve into a better version of yourself. Beyond the benefits to yourself, listening empathetically contributes greatly to the well-being of others. Indeed, by giving your attention and listening, you allow your interlocutors to feel understood, which will make them feel good or even better in certain situations. Since helping others can bring well-being and pleasure, it is a double benefit. Empathic listening also contributes to a better understanding of others and to the easing of tensions. In fact, the more we understand each other, the less conflict we have. 

Sometimes we feel misunderstood ourselves, and we suffer from this in a more or less direct way. It is also for this reason that it is important to listen empathetically to others. In order not to make others experience what we ourselves do not want to experience.

The fundamental difference between empathy and sympathy

It is essential to distinguish sympathy from empathy. Sympathy consists in identifying with the other, which automatically removes the notion of distance. There is a sharing, a contagion of the emotion on the contrary of empathy where a representation of the emotion takes place. 

Let’s take the example of this speech: “I have too much work, I feel overwhelmed by everything I have to do”. The empathetic reaction would be “I understand that you feel overwhelmed by your workload”. Whereas a sympathetic reaction would be “I understand, I’m also overloaded at work and have a hard time with it like you do”. This difference may seem superficial but it makes all the difference. Indeed, sympathy can lead to a lack of mutual understanding and a feeling of not being well understood. There is also a risk that identification with the other person may lead to a loss of distance. 

How to develop empathic listening: key factors 

There are five main factors that allow for better listening and especially listening based on empathy. 

– Understanding: this involves connecting with the other person. We must be able to hear what we are being told and accept it without expressing judgments. The effort lies in understanding the reality of the other person. To verify that you have understood what the other person wants you to understand, you can tell him/her directly what you understand about his/her reality. He will feel all the more understood and will tell you if you are on the wrong road. 

– Sincerity and authenticity: for the exchange to result in a feeling of well-being, you must be sincere with yourself. If you are authentic with yourself, you will be authentic with the other person. To do this, try to understand what you are feeling during the exchange and remove any conscious filter that may hinder the sincerity of your words. 

– Availability: in order to listen and welcome, you must be available. Indeed, if your head is elsewhere you will not be able to give your full attention to your interlocutor which will hinder the exchange. You must be willing to spend time with the person. Be in the here and now in order to share and experience with the other person. 

– Attention: You also need to be attentive. Attentive to what the other person is transmitting to you, to your understanding of his or her speech. This requires vigilance, a continuous, sustained attention directed towards listening. 

– Empathy: by adopting an attitude centered on the other person, you will be able to put yourself in their place to know what they are feeling and thinking. Contrary to what we may think, it is not necessary to be emotionally connected to the other person in order to show empathy. Beyond the ability to represent his or her emotions, you must acquire the ability to understand them. 

As you can see, empathic listening is a major asset in understanding others and is useful in many situations. Like any skill, it takes practice to master it. I hope his recommendations will help you do so. You are strongly encouraged to pay close attention to your listening. 

Bibliography 

Bellanger, L. B., & Couchaere, M-J. C. (2012). L’écoute : Osez l’empathie pour améliorer vos relations (3e éd.). ESF.

Famery, S. F. (2013). L’empathie : L’art d’être en relation. Eyrolles.

Siproudhis, L. S., & Magnes, J.-P. M. (2011). Ecoute ! ! ! Editions Lavoisier5, 1‑3. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11725-011-0273-x