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5 Gifts of Listening With Empathy

Woman smiling holding ear to listen with empathy

Getty/AaronAmat

Listening with empathy allows you to deepen your relationships with loved ones and strangers alike.

“That’s not what I meant,” my husband answers. He’s responding to my attempt to rephrase what he’s just said. As a spiritual director I’m a professional at this. I’ve been trained to pause in sacred awareness of another soul and listen for deeper understanding.

So you would think I’d know how to listen to my husband, right? Nope. Emotions bubble up, words fill my head, and a compulsive need to speak takes over.

After decades of marriage, we’re now living apart. He has an intense job in another city and comes home on weekends. The change has been tough. Communication in marriage is a challenge anyway and only having a couple of days together has been an adjustment.

We’ve figured out the workweek. It’s the re-entry that’s difficult. He’s tired. I’m anxious for attention. I start a conversation to connect and he would rather talk about sports.

Talking isn’t our problem, it’s listening that’s hard.

I feel ashamed I can’t listen well in these circumstances. We recognize that we need help. A counselor affirms that communication is key. We know this but he offers something more practical. He says empathy can change the way we listen to one another.

Listening with empathy means being willing to experience the feelings of another person. It’s choosing to see life through their eyes and acting as a mirror reflecting back their experience. This means I give my husband permission to say what’s on his mind. When he’s finished I fight the temptation to say, “You’re wrong.” Instead, I restate his perspective. I don’t have to agree with him. I just need to listen.

It’s made me wonder. Could learning to listen with more empathy make a difference in our world today? How can we become more open to hearing a different perspective? Can we make listening as valuable as talking? Here are some reasons why it’s worth a try.

Listening With Empathy Opens Doors

I used to be critical of couples sitting at a restaurant both staring at their phone. Now we do it! It’s difficult to put my phone down, sit quietly, and listen for what’s not being said. My husband’s body language reveals he is tense about something. He’s returning a text regarding work. I struggle to keep my mouth shut and let him finish.

Then I ask him what’s going on. “I really don’t want to talk about it.” His usual reply. He has a stressful job. I reluctantly try empathy. “It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated.” Bam. He’s off talking. When we listen for more than what’s on the surface we open doors for honest sharing.

This is possible even with total strangers. On Veterans Day last year, I was running into the grocery store for milk. An elderly veteran sat in the corner handing out red paper poppies for donations. I grabbed a dollar and handed it to him. I was in a hurry so I cringed a little when my question slipped out, “Where did you serve?” I asked. A big smile crossed his face. He happily gave me a ten-minute synopsis of Korea all the while continuing to collect money and hand out flowers. As I left to grab my milk I realized I could have easily missed a story that made my day.

Listening With Empathy Builds Awareness

“What feelings are you having? How are you experiencing God in this? Is there more?” These are the types of questions I learned while training to be a spiritual director. I help people identify where God is present and active in their lives. Reflective questions invite us to become more aware of what’s happening inside.

I have a friend who asks these kinds of questions whenever we talk on the phone. She asks me how I’m doing, listens to my response, and poses a new question that takes me deeper. It’s a rare gift. I’m invited to share more about myself than I realized was even there.

Her ability to use reflective questions takes me down a path I wouldn’t go on my own. I find myself spilling over with new discoveries because she’s invited me to keep looking. Cultivating this kind of a listening relationship opens up the windows of a soul. You get a chance to connect soul-to-soul.

Opportunities can come out of nowhere. I hopped in a cab recently and struck up a conversation with my cab driver who I discovered was Muslim. He said he wasn’t a very good Muslim because he only prayed two times a day instead of five. “Do you notice anything different when you pray five times?” I asked. He hesitated and then answered as if he was only just discovering it, “I’m more surrendered.”

Listening With Empathy Cultivates Trust

Listening to the stories and experiences of other people is a privilege. As they reach deep into their lives and share their stories a new relationship forms; one of trust.

At one spiritual direction appointment, a woman told me she had something difficult to tell me. She said, “I’m an alcoholic so you may not want to meet with me.” I assured her that was not the case and for several years we met together as she unpacked her life. She was remarkable. She had many losses over a lifetime. Loneliness and betrayal were the reasons she drank but she was ready to face the pain. A safe place to be honest with herself gave her courage. I couldn’t wait to see her each month and listen to her journey. As we listened together she began to heal.

Her honesty and integrity are still with me. After our sessions I’d sit quietly for a few moments. I found myself exploring my own vulnerabilities.

Though we were different our questions were the same. Who am I? What do I really want? How can I get there? We all share the same struggle of finding who we really are. We all need someone we can trust with our stories.

Listening With Empathy Gives the Gift of Presence

We often feel compelled to fill in conversation with more talk. But simply being present by listening well can offer so much more. In quiet moments the real pieces of life become palpable. They’re usually right below the surface waiting to be revealed.

The attentive listener is someone aware of an opportunity for deeper sharing. The attentive listener opens the door by being present, invites more disclosure by staying present, and honors the revelations by remaining present.

[Read: “The Splendid Spiritual Practice of Silence.”]

Recently someone came to me for spiritual direction with a number of goals. The plan was to go through them one by one. Instead a story from the past came up. As it unfolded feelings began to surface. Insights emerged and tears were shared. By the end we both had a sense of something important happening.

Writer and teacher Henri Nouwen knew the importance of being present when we are listening to others. He wrote, “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully.”

Listening With Empathy Deepens Understanding

We all have opportunities to practice better listening. Marriage is a prime testing ground. So are friendships, churches, communities, and social media. Differing opinions are part of everyday conversation yet defensive reactions often get in the way of understanding one another better.

Fear and anger drive us to protect ourselves.

We’ve spent a lifetime deciding who we are and what we believe. We’re not willing to give that up easily but it can cost us in relationships. A Seattle Times survey reported that some of their readers “stopped associating with friends and relatives” who supported different presidential candidates.

Listening with empathy helps us open to another perspective without giving up our own. “Works of love are always to accept and respect others,” taught Mother Teresa. And respecting others promotes our own self-respect.

Here’s a challenge. In your next difficult conversation try focusing on the person as much as the issue. Imagine you are taking your turn listening instead of talking. Look for the feelings being shared. Wait to hear them. If there’s a moment of silence say, “Tell me more” and keep listening.

Listening changes us. Having someone hear our story changes us. And listening together with empathy can change the way we understand one another.

Keep reading about empathy: “4 Ways to Increase Your Empathy.”


About the Author

Phoebe Love is a spiritual director and offers guided retreats in the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin. She has an MA in Pastoral Studies.phoebelove.org

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