How to Listen with Understanding and Empathy: Who Is the Spotlight Shining On?


By Arthur L. Costa, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is.

Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

—Peter Senge

The culture of the home, the school, the workplace changes dramatically when all members lend their mental activity to each other by taking the time to really listen to what the other is saying and provide emotional support through empathy.

But listening in this manner is complex and often stymied by judgments and misunderstandings. While some people may think they are empathizing, their use of certain words and phrases may actually detract from empathy. For example:

Extinguishing the Spotlight

You approach a friend wanting to express your feelings to them. However, your friend denies or deflects those feeling. For example:

You confide to your friend: “I’m feeling so lonely.”
Your friend responds by saying: “Ohhh. You shouldn’t feel that way. Look at the bright side!”

Your friend just shut off the spotlight.

Stealing the Spotlight

With the hood up, I was working on my car in my driveway. My neighbor walked past and asked about the issue. I told him I was having difficulty with my battery and that I had to buy a new battery, but it doesn’t hold a charge. It’s costing me a lot of money, time and trouble. My neighbor responded by saying, “You think you’ve got troubles, let me tell you about my car!”

He stole the spotlight from me and shined it on himself.

Shifting the Spotlight

I told my friend about how we felt when we had to put down our old, lame, blind and deaf beloved dog. “I know it’s sad,” she replied, “when I put down our old dog we all cried and we still miss her.”

The friend connected to a shared experience, but she shifted the spotlight to her instead of keeping it on me.

Skillful Spotlighting

Skillful listening with understanding and empathy requires that you keep the spotlight on the person to whom you’re listening before you respond with any shared experiences you may have had. Your intention is to empathize with a person’s struggle through deep listening rather than actively pulling them out of it. Often your capacity to empathize leads the other to a better understanding of what they are experiencing and perhaps a pathway to a more desired state. What you are empathizing with is their capacity to resolve whatever it is they are struggling with. That confidence in their capacity to solve their issues is the most helpful in being empathic.

To be a skillful, understanding, and empathic listener you need to try to:

  1. Clear your mind of other thoughts and focus directly on the person. Let go of your own perspectives, solutions and advice giving so that you can understand their feelings and the situation or conditions that may be producing those feelings. Your goal is to create a sense of closeness that will help the person feel safe in sharing their personal thoughts and feelings.
  2. Closely observe both verbal responses with nonverbal behaviors. Pay attention to their verbal response (e.g., voice intonation, volume, pitch, rapidity of speech). Pay attention to their nonverbal behaviors through the face (e.g., tears, eyes cast down/enlarged, coloration—redness/whiteness, lips—smile, scowl, muscle tension) and the body (e.g., clenched fists, fingers pointing, flailing arms, hunched over shoulders). As you focus on a person’s facial expressions and body language, you pick up cues and interpret and reflect on similar emotional experiences that you have had.
  3. Label the emotion you are inferring from the other person and search for indicators of confirmation. We express empathy when we label another person’s emotions correctly at the proper level of intensity that the person is experiencing. For example, “You’re upset…” “You’re angry…” “You’re overjoyed…” “You were surprised…”
  4. Paraphrase the content, situation or reason that caused the emotion and search for indicators of confirmation. (“Yes,” “that’s right” smile, erect body, relaxed torso, etc.) If none, empathize again rephrasing the emotion. “…. because she disregarded your idea.” “Name-calling hurts…” “You really cooled it…” “Because you thought she’d call on someone else…”
  5. Offer a description of what conditions the person might desire instead of the existing ones. After several interchanges with repeated paraphrasing, you want the person to feel resourceful so you infer a description of what they want instead. Making a positive inference about the person’s goals, hopes and/or desires helps the person see the problem differently.

Following are the same words but put in sequence so you can see how they are connected:

  • You’re upset, …because your sister wouldn’t listen…She disregarded your idea.” “…and you want to be listened to.”
  • “You’re angry…because she called you a bad name. Name-calling hurts…” “…and you want to be treated with respect.”
  • “You’re overjoyed…because you got a high score on the test,” “you really cooled it…” “…and you want earn a high grade in that course.”
  • “You were surprised…” “…because you were not expecting to be called on.” “You thought she’d call on someone else…” “and you’d prefer it if you knew that you were going to be called on.”

Your Journey Towards Greater Empathy

Empathy is about shining the spotlight on the other person. When you empathize, you not only build trust, you also provide solace and support and you are a continuous learner–learning more about that person, about relationship-building with others, your own views about the world and what it means to be human.


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