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Empathetic Listening

February 8

Rear view of son and elderly father sitting together at home. Son caring for his father
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About This Episode

(Season 5, Episode 6)

In this episode, we share the practice of empathetic listening—a game-changer in building emotionally supportive environments. Discover why empathetic listening goes beyond the basics of active listening and how it can transform your interactions. Jessica Beckendorf guides you through a step-by-step practice, providing insights on identifying listening patterns, understanding empathy, and reaping the benefits for you and your community.



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Bob Bertsch: Actively listening with empathy can help build emotionally supportive environments, nurture authentic relationships, and enhance collaboration and teamwork. Hi, everyone. Welcome to this week’s Practicing Connection practicast. I’m Bob Bertsch. The practice we’re sharing today is empathetic listening, which builds deeper connections by bringing empathy to active listening. My Practicing Connection co-host, Jessica Beckendorf, will be guiding us through a practice in just a few minutes. First, let’s learn more about empathetic listening.

Hi, Jessica. There are more than a few different practices for listening that I think both of us have come across over the years. What makes empathetic listening different from these other types of listening?

Jessica Beckendorf: Active listening is probably the skill that most people are familiar with. This is where you work hard at listening to the words the person in front of you is saying. Then you check in with them that you heard them by paraphrasing or summarizing what they just said in your own words. That’s active listening.

I study a lot about connection, and I never felt like active listening went far enough for me. Sometimes I even disliked it when someone would reflect back to me because it somehow felt a little patronizing or a little bit condescending at times. I didn’t really feel heard. That’s why when I learned about empathetic listening, I was really intrigued. If active listening is about reflecting back the words your conversation partner said, and seeking to understand the content of what they’re saying, empathetic listening is about reflecting back the emotions behind the words and seeking to understand a bit about the other person’s inner world.

For example, active listening might sound like, “What I hear you saying is,” and then you paraphrase, and empathetic listening might begin with, “It sounds like that was frustrating, or you sound really excited about that. Tell me more,” or whatever curiosity came up for you during their story. One way I’ve seen empathetic listening described is that it asks us to not just listen with our ears and eyes and all the normal ways that we often listen, depending on our abilities, but also with our heart and mind. That’s, to me, gets at the heart of empathetic listening. It really demonstrates that we are listening to understand versus listening to reply. I do think active listening talks a lot about how active listening is about listening to understand versus listening to reply. Empathetic listening is the demonstration that you are listening to understand versus listening to reply.

I do want to quick say that I’ve come now to appreciate active listening, even though I don’t love it the way it’s practiced all the time. To me, I’ve come to appreciate it as sort of a beginner skill toward deeper levels of listening. When someone practices active listening, it shows they understand that listening to someone is important. I think that they should be commended for that, for even giving it a try, for even getting out of their own head for a moment just to listen to your words.

Bob: That’s really interesting. I’m interested in how we bring empathy to this listening, because it is empathetic listening. I think maybe the important question to answer first is, if we’re bringing empathy, what exactly is empathy?

Jessica: I really like this question because I’ve seen empathy defined as a skill and a choice. I’ve also heard it described as a quality, but I think that’s really dangerous territory because empathy really is something that we can all exhibit and we can all work on. Defining it as a quality is problematic because there really are probably some people for which empathy comes a little more easily, and that there are others that might have to work a little bit harder at it. The thing is, we all can work at it, and it really is something that we can develop. In a way, it’s all three of those. It’s a skill, it’s a choice. I would say to, let’s say to a way lesser degree of quality, it’s centered on emotional understanding. Basically understanding how someone might be feeling, or doing your best to understand how someone might be feeling.

Many researchers actually differentiate between two types of empathy, affective empathy, which refers to the feelings that we get in response to other people’s emotions, and cognitive empathy, which refers to our ability to both identify others’ emotions and understand their emotions.

Empathy is really wildly important to more than just improving our working relationships. Research has uncovered that cultivating empathy in our lives, our schools, our workplaces reduces prejudice and racism, reduces bullying, promotes acts of kindness or helping others in need. Where a culture has been developed in your workplace that’s empathetic, you are more likely to engage in helping others in need, and more. That’s just like a little bit of the studies that have come out about empathy.

One of the things that I found really interesting, though, that I didn’t know before preparing for this practicast, is that empathy is contagious. When empathy is encouraged as part of a group or office culture, people are more likely to exhibit empathy.

Bob: Thanks. That really helps narrow down what we’re talking about when we talk about empathy. What are some of the benefits of practicing empathetic listening?

Jessica: Because empathetic listening is like a demonstration of our willingness to try to understand a person, I think one of the biggest benefits is bridge building across differences and resolving conflict. It also can deepen relationships, or I would even say it does deepen relationships when we’re practicing empathetic listening with each other. Imagine someone who really seems to get you or tries to get you and checks in to make sure that that’s the case. Wouldn’t you be more likely to be willing to share a little more with them, or maybe even ask more about their own experience? Someone who always seems to get the deeper understanding of what you’re saying, even if they don’t have the same experience, they seem to at least exhibit that they’re trying to understand you as a person, as a whole person.

In a workplace, empathetic listening creates safer, more inclusive environments which can help improve our collaborative efforts. It’s really important because I think very often, our tendency is to try to, whether we’re doing it consciously or not, try to control the direction of a conversation, or to steer it toward a particular outcome. Sometimes simply our minds are just elsewhere, or we don’t trust ourselves to remember what we wanted to say, or we might even have particular feelings about the topic or the other person or ourselves that get in the way. Empathetic listening allows us to suspend all of that and just be in the conversation, just connect with the other person and build bridges where they’re necessary.

Bob: I’m excited to try it. Could you walk us through the practice?

Jessica: Yes. It is a collection. I’d like to say that this is a collection of simple practices that you may choose to try to practice all at once, or you might choose to do one at a time. The first thing, though, is to identify your normal patterns of listening. We know what we do when we listen or don’t listen. We know where our weaknesses are with this. Essentially, I want you to reflect on, maybe take a piece of paper and a pencil and spend 10 minutes or so thinking about what do you normally do. Do you get excited and try breaking in every chance you get, just trying to show them how much you have in common? Do you jump in with solutions before understanding the whole story, or asking if they’d like to hear an idea or a solution from you? Do you tend to facilitate the conversation versus participate in it? I’ve been guilty of this. Do you only listen until you’ve heard something you connect to, then distractedly wait until they’re done speaking so that you can comment on what they said a few minutes ago that you felt a connection with?

I want you to think about how you normally communicate and how you normally listen, and ask yourself where you feel you get tripped up when it comes to listening. Like I said, we know what we do. We know our weaknesses when it comes to listening. Where do you get tripped up? Then I want you to think about what need or fear might this come from. Do you have a need to fix things? Do you really feel this deep need to try to fix things for people? Do you have a need to connect to say, “Me too, me too. I’ve felt the same way,” or, “I’ve been in the same situation.”? Do you feel a need to control or guide the outcome of the conversation? Are you afraid you won’t be heard? Are you afraid you’ll be judged? There’s lots of different things that might come up for you here. I think that being self-aware about your listening tendencies is a really great way to begin to improve your listening skills overall, and then to get into practicing the empathetic listening.

Okay. Next, adopt a mindset that you can learn from other perspectives, and that each person is the expert of their own experience. When someone tells you a story, think of it as a gift and accept it, which is essentially acceptance of their reality and humanity.

Accept what they’re saying to you as them being the expert of their experience and sharing a little bit of that with you.

The third thing is, when you’re in conversation, so this is the nuts and bolts of where the practice is happening, when you’re in the conversation, let the conversation go where it goes. Keep your mind in the present moment. Doing things like putting our devices away and bringing our focus back to the person. We know our minds are going to wander, that’s the way our minds are built, but constantly bringing it back to the person, bring it back to the person.

Listen to the words being said, but also watch for other cues, their body language, the change in energy when they talk about certain things, or the change in their tone. That will help you identify the emotions so that you can later reflect that back.

The next thing is, as you’re listening to the words and you’re catching their emotions from watching their body language, become curious about that. If you’re treating everything that is being said as a gift, this might come a little easier. Ask yourself what might be driving their words, what values, emotions, strengths, what personal experiences might be at play, both past and present.

Then last, show them that you are seeking to understand. Reflect back the emotions that you’re hearing to check in with your interpretation. This is a really great way to start listening empathetically. One thing you might say is something like, “It sounds like that really frustrated you. Is that correct? Did I get that right?” It’s okay to check in, no one’s going to think it’s weird. It might feel weird when you first start doing it, because it did for me. I thought it was weird for me to, for one thing, I thought it was a little strange for me to comment on someone’s emotional state, but it really wasn’t. Actually, I found very quickly that it was appreciated. This might feel weird at first, but just state that emotion that you interpreted from their body language and from the words they were saying, and then say, “Is that right? Did I get that right?” Then let them respond to that. It’s totally okay if they say, “Well, it wasn’t so much frustrating as it was anxiety producing.” Then get curious about that. It’s okay to be wrong. That’s why you’re checking in to make sure that your interpretation is correct. You’ll get better and better at it as you go.

I just pulled out this six-step process to empathetic listening. Identifying your normal patterns of listening, adopting a mindset that you can learn from others’ perspectives, letting the conversation go where it goes, listening for body language, and tone, and facial expressions, becoming curious about what they’re saying and showing them that you’re seeking to understand. I have to say, though, as you practice these more and more and more, and as you’re aware of them as they’re happening, it becomes faster and faster. Some of these things happen in fractions of seconds. This is a long list of things, but they can be practiced individually, they can be practiced all together, and the more you do it and the more you’re aware of what you could and should be practicing, the faster and easier it becomes to actually practice it.

Bob: Thanks for guiding us through that, Jessica.

Jessica: You are very welcome. Listening empathetically, like I just said, is not a cut and dry process, but if you implement even one of the things that I talked about today, it will be a step closer toward better connections and healthier workplaces.

Bob: That’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for joining us. We hope you’ll give this practice a try and share your experience in the Practicing Connection LinkedIn group where people supporting military families practice the skills that empower us to work together so that we can positively impact our communities and help families thrive. You’ll find the link to the Practicing Connection community group on our website at

We’ll be back next week with another practice. This one is called Determining Your Values. Until then, keep practicing.

Announcement: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of One Op, and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award numbers 2019-48770-30366, and 2023-48770-41333.


[00:14:52] [END OF AUDIO]


February 8
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