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Listening with Empathy – Why Does it Matter?

November 2, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Listening

Listening with Empathy - Why Does it Matter?

Mother Teresa once said: “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” In other words, the extent to which we listen to others well before we speak and establish genuine empathy and rapport is what we should always be striving to do. In this way our words will be wiser and will echo for longer in positive ways on the person to whom we are speaking. Listening with empathy consequently becomes a critical skill, especially for leaders, and we need to practice it a lot more often than we think we have the time to do. There are 5 particular steps which everyone can take to become a more empathetic listener:

1. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and concerns

Naturally, most people would prefer to be listened to by a person who is warm and attentive than someone who is cold and distant. We should therefore always try to observe and identify the feelings of the other person (e.g. happy, angry, confused, sad, scared) and the strength of feeling (e.g. strong or weak). We can then more appropriately find a few words that capture the essence of what the other person is feeling, for example, “I sense that you are really annoyed” or “you appear to be a little sad.” Use these words as a response to check how accurately you are perceiving the other person. Feedback from the speaker may confirm your perception, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel,” or it may indicate that your perception needs to be modified. For example the other person might say: “That’s not quite right , I feel very angry and frustrated.”

2. Accept the other person’s experience as real and important by having a positive and encouraging attitude

Any good listener needs to have a positive and accepting attitude to what is being said. They need to show that they are relating to what is being said. They show sensitivity by indicating that they accept the other person’s standpoint even if they may not agree with it. Hence by trying to understand what the speaker has been saying at the level they have expressed it and by showing that you understand and accept the speaker’s feelings and experience, you will be able to encourage people to open up their experiences to you more fully.

3. Be sensitive to your own reactions and focus on understanding the speaker’s message

Carefully check yourself out as a listener by taking note of your own emotional reactions when someone is talking with you or offering his or her feedback. Ask yourself: Are you being focused, tuned in and interested or are you showing too much indifference? Are you being impatient? Are you switching off when complex or difficult topics arise? Are you reacting to emotional words that have a particular meaning for you? Does your pulse rate or breathing rate increase when keratin subjects are raised with you?

Most importantly we need to keep our own emotions under control so that we can focus on understanding the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. A speaker may express their feelings verbally and directly or indirectly through his or her tone of voice, body language or just by describing a situation. If you get over excited emotionally you may miss the cues or even lose the point.

4. Show a willingness to understand the other person by “walking in their shoes”

In order to respond to a speaker’s feelings you need to have a good understanding of how the situation is being experienced by the speaker. Empathy is a way of responding to another person’s feelings. You should therefore ideally ask yourself: “If I were the speaker and I were doing and saying these things, how would I feel?” Put yourself in the speaker’s place. Try to see what is being said through their eyes. Understand the speaker’s values and attitudes.

Empathy sometimes gets linked with sympathy but the two are very different. Sympathy means sharing in the feeling being experienced by the another person and showing compassion. Empathy, on the other hand, involves putting yourself into another person’s shoes to try to understand how they experience a situation from within their world. Listen for the speaker’s emotional meaning as well as to content. Hence, in summary, a sympathetic response would be: I feel what you are feeling, and an empathetic response would be: I understand how you are feeling, and an apathetic response would be: I don’t care how you feel.

5. Develop a positive relationship with the speaker by mirroring his or her gestures (e.g. voice rate, vocabulary, facial expressions, favorite phrases)

A very useful way to engage in empathetic listening is to build your relationship with the speaker by focusing very carefully on what he or she is both doing and saying. Observe and (within reason) mirror the actions and expressions of the speaker. This technique is called pacing and can be used to help the speaker feel at ease. Pacing involves imitating or mirroring the speaker’s breathing, voice rate and volume, vocabulary and even facial expressions. You can match the speaker’s behavior by speeding up or slowing down your voice, using the same words and phrases, using similar gestures and even breathing at the same rate. The speaker will notice the similarities and feel more comfortable. You will build rapport by showing that you are actively listening. Once again, be patient as this requires practice.


The word “empathy” comes from the Greek noun empatheia, meaning passion, or empathes, meaning emotional. Empathy can therefore be said to be the act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and to experience feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. In other words and especially from a listening perspective, rather than considering only your own feelings and thoughts when you talk with someone, to feel true empathy you need to shift your focus of attention strongly toward the other person and genuinely hear not only what they are saying in words, but where they are really coming from. The more that you can apply as many of the above steps as possible, the more likely this will happen in all of your future conversations.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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