We all love to feel heard and understood. We all know how it feels when we aren’t. We love people who feel warm and non-judgmental, who accept you as you are and inspire you to grow. How do we become this way or what is it that these people have? These warm souls practice the skill of empathetic listening.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Oxford). Sympathy: I feel FOR you. Empathy: I feel WITH you. Compassion: I am moved to action by you. (Nielsen Norman Group)
When someone tells you about their problem, how do you respond? Do you feel helpless and out of control, so you quickly shovel out some cliché advice and walk away with a sigh, feeling like you’ve fixed it? Do you patiently listen while they talk or do you act uncomfortable, bored, or shifty? Body language and an open heart are two very important factors of empathetic listening. Empathetic listening is making regular eye contact, and appropriate encouraging/validating noises, attending to them with no distractions, having an open stance (no crossed arms or turning away). It means asking leading question or using affirming comments such as “How did that make you feel?” Or “That sounds really difficult.”
When we listen empathetically, we are loving people for who they are: God’s beloved creation, not for what they do or say. It is helpful to listen non-judgmentally- not passing judgment in our minds as they share, and not filtering what they say as right or wrong. We each see the world a little differently from each other and perhaps what they are saying comes out different from what they mean. Dallas Willard once said, “Our pre-existing ideas and assumptions are what actually determine what we can see, hear, or otherwise observe.” Listening empathetically means to clear one’s mind of assumptions and prejudice. Ask questions such as, “So what I hear you saying is this…” or “Is that what you mean?” They can then clarify their thoughts instead of you assuming what they meant. Jordan Peterson says it nicely. “I’m not involved. I’m just listening. It’s not my problem. It’s A problem.”
Unless someone asks us for help or advice, it isn’t our problem. Our job is simply to extend empathy and listen as they tell their story. Peterson then goes on to say that listening and reflecting to each other is like helping each other prune back the dead branches of trees. We help each other by summarizing each other’s stories. For example, “So what you’re saying is this?” Or “That does sound difficult.” We mirror what they say and as we listen, we help them prune their story to make better sense of it.
Nothing feels better to a hurting soul than someone holding space for them. We do this by listening and holding their emotions, fears, and problems without trying to push our own idea of what they feel. We put ourselves in their shoes and try to understand the emotions and problems they are facing as they see and experience it. We need to listen sacrificially. We may not agree, but we show we have time and ears for them.
Shaming comments such as “You shouldn’t have done that.” or “What were you thinking?!” are not helpful. Telling bigger or worse stories and making it all about you, offering unasked for advice, or proffering phrases such as “Everything happens for a reason!” or “Well at least….” also do not make the person feel heard.
When we listen empathetically, we give the other person the gift of being seen and heard. Feeling seen and heard makes us feel loved, understood, and cared for. It relieves us of the burden of carrying our problems by ourselves and helps us not feel so alone.
The answer to each of our own problems lies within ourselves. We as humans are not the answer; Jesus and our relationship with God are the answer and it all comes down to our choices. Deuteronomy says to choose this day whom you will serve. The only power we possess on earth is the power of choice. The choice to change starts with accepting myself and my problems. We must tell ourselves the truth. If I accept myself as being fearfully and wonderfully made, and beloved, I know my true worth. When I accept my problems, limitations, failings, and sinful or harmful choices I’ve made and see them exactly as they are, that is the catalyst to finding healing and repentance. Then change can happen.
If we accept others exactly as they are when they come to us, we allow them to learn to accept themselves and then facilitate change. You cannot help someone find healing and hope if you are not extending that attitude towards them. Judgment of others only creates shame. It does not create change.
How do we help others? Compassion is feeling for (sympathy) or with (empathy) the person and then moving towards helping. There is a caveat though. We can only help others as much as they want to be helped. Only they can make the choice to accept their problem, stop running from it and change. You cannot force change. Dr. Caroline Leaf says, “Compassion and care without boundaries is simply another form of enabling.” If we are doing more work for another person than they themselves are doing, we are hindering any true change and burning ourselves out in the process.
How do we know when to express compassion? One of the most helpful tips I’ve found when listening to someone else is to ask them, “Would you like advice or just for me to listen?” This solves a lot of frustration for both the listener and the speaker. Depending on their answer, any advice given is then welcome. Or if listening is all they need, the space you hold for them will help them “prune their own branches.” Voicing their problems aloud to a listening, empathetic ear is often all they need to understand what to do differently. We can also pray with them or for them. One of the most helpful loving things someone has ever asked me was what specifically they could pray for me.
Jesus is the best example of an empathetic listener. Not only has He been in our shoes, but He knows when we are just in need of a listening ear or when we need advice. He loves us exactly as we are and also when we truly understand that we want to change to be more like Him. We can take our doubts, fears, anger, confusion, and problems to Him and He will give us comfort or correction as He knows best.
The Bible sums up empathetic listening in one short verse: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:” James 1:19
A new resource has been added for teachers and parents:
A website and organization dedicated to helping vulnerable children using the idea of a stoplight for managing emotions and behaviours.