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When someone in your life is suffering – whether it’s from grief, loss, pain, or illness – being there for them is easier said than done. When all you want to do is take the pain away, you can start to feel helpless. What, if anything, could you offer them that would be helpful and appreciated? While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, one of the best things you can do is offer an empathetic listening ear. Let’s explore how to become an empathetic listener to someone in your life that’s suffering.

What is Empathetic Listening?

Empathetic listening is the practice of active listening. Listening with the intention to understand, not to brush off or to respond. When someone is suffering, sometimes the best thing you can do is show them they have someone to lean on through you.

In general, most people who are suffering are looking for empathy, not solutions. They want to be validated with words like, “I’m sorry you’re going through all of this,” “Wow, that is really terrible,” or “I hate that this happened to you.”

You want to steer away from storied responses (for example, “someone I know went through something similar and was just fine so you’ll be fine too”) and attempts to make it better (for example, “everything happens for a reason”) you’ll close them off to opening up further.

How Can I Listen Empathetically?

  1. Get on their level.
    Becoming an empathetic listener means getting on the same level as the person who is speaking. You can do this by physically placing yourself on their level (squatting down to their height, sitting with them, joining them on the floor, etc.) and metaphorically by taking on their energy (trying to see, feel, and understand them through their perspective).
  2. Give them your full attention.
    In today’s world, distractions are endless. When trying to listen empathetically, put your phone face down or (better yet) completely remove it from the area. Silence or take off any digital watches or devices that may take your attention. Walk away from or turn off computers, tablets, and televisions. Avoid looking at clocks nearby.

    Make sure that the person knows you have their full and undivided attention – that you are focused and completely tuned in to what they have to say. That you aren’t in a rush to leave or move on to the next thing and are instead here for them as long as they need.
  3. Be respectful and nonjudgmental.
    Try to step away from any preconceived notions, frustrations, opinions, or doubts in your mind. While this isn’t easy, it’s important to approach the conversation from a more neutral place. You don’t need to agree with everything they say, but by stepping away from your biases, you’ll show the other person that what they have to say is valued and respected in your presence.
  4. Seek to understand beyond the words.
    Some people are naturally in tune with the emotions, context, and bigger picture when they are communicating with someone. But for many more of us, that is a skill that doesn’t come naturally.

    Take the time to listen and observe – both to the words that are being spoken and to the context that isn’t being acknowledged aloud. As Luke Keupfer puts it, “Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart.” You can read facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal context cues to understand the greater picture.
  5. Consider your non-verbal cues.
    Similar to how you can understand someone’s bigger picture, you are also presenting a bigger picture to the other person. Pay attention to your own body language and keep it supportive and positive (make eye contact, uncross your arms, cross your legs toward the person speaking, offer head nods, hold hands if that’s natural to you, etc.)

    Avoid glancing away, staring down, eye rolls, crossed arms, and other non-verbal cues that can be interpreted to mean that you’re closing off to what the other person has to say.
  6. Embrace moments of quiet
    For many of us, silence is uncomfortable. We’re taught to fill dead air with words or check our phones – anything to avoid the awkward silence. But in empathetic listening, moments of quiet can be a very good thing.

    When you stay quiet, you create space. This space can give the other person a chance to formulate their next thought, an opportunity for them to rein in or feel their emotions, and a chance for yourself to absorb what was said and think before responding.

    Sometimes the other person just wants someone to hear them. These moments of quiet are a wonderful way to show them that that person is you.
  7. Reinforce understanding
    When you do speak, ensure first that you understood what was said. This gives you the confidence to proceed productively and allows the other person to feel safe and understood.

    To do this, you can repeat your understanding in the form of a question. Ask questions and get clarification where needed. For example, “What I think I’m understanding is that you feel…” or “What I’m hearing is…” or “Can you please explain x in further detail?”

    While there’s no set script or dialogue needed for empathetic listening, it can be helpful to think about rephrasing, paraphrasing, asking additional questions, and getting clarification first. Listen, understand, clarify, then speak if needed. 
  8. Thank them for sharing and follow up
    After the conversation ends, thank them for opening up to you. Acknowledge and honor the trust they have put in you by reinforcing the safe space you’ve created for them. Try saying something like, “I’m glad you told me,” or “Thank you for trusting me with this.”

    Finally, ensure you have set reminders (or will remember) to follow up on the conversation at a later date.

Empathetic Listening: Closing Thoughts

Active and empathetic listening is a skill most of us aren’t naturally good at. The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and developed over time. By listening to understand instead of respond, we can create a safe and comfortable place for the loved ones who need our support in times of suffering.

If you provide regular care to a loved one, we are here for you. As a caregiver, you’re faced with new challenges every day. The California Caregiver Resource Centers are a network of eleven independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit organizations across California. They were created with you both in mind and at heart to be a free resource as you navigate the challenging role you’re in. We would love to connect you with your local Center, where they can talk more about local programs for caregivers, answer your questions, and explain how they can best support you.

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