Listen Actively and Empathically

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

September, 2017

Empathic listening builds mutual understanding and trust.

Even when the conflict is not resolved, empathic listening can have a profound impact on the parties, improving relationships and generating mutual respect.

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How: The former ombudsman at the University of Colorado, Tom Sebok, used to give a lecture in my conflict skills class every semester on active listening.  He said it involved three actions: 1) attending to the speaker, 2) paraphrasing what the speaker said and 3) summarizing the key points.

By "attending" he meant listening intently--by facing the speaker, making direct eye contact (unless culturally inappropriate), nodding or making other nonverbal indicators of attention, and making sounds (such as "uh-huh" or "hmm") that show you are listening. Avoid distractions--don't look at your phone or attend to other people when engaging in active listening.

Paraphrasing is saying back to the speaker in your own words what you heard him or her say--right after you hear him or her say it.  But don't be a parrot! Use an introduction such as "It sounds to me as if..."  or "so, you're saying that."  It often helps to add a feeling word to the substance of the message: "It seems to me as if you are really disappointed that the presentation didn't go as you planned." (The listener is adding the notion of disappointment as an add-on to what was overtly said.)  They the speaker will confirm if that added piece of information is correct or not--and if it isn't he/she will clarify further.

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Summarizing is a condensed restatement of what a person has said over a longer period of time.  If the speaker is on a roll, and you don't want to interrupt every sentence or two to paraphrase, it often works better to let them tell their whole story uninterrupted--or a big chunk of it-- and then summarize what was said, again starting with "so what I heard was.... and adding feeling words, where appropriate.

This can be used effectively in many situations, but it is particularly useful when someone is angry with you.  In that case, they usually will expect you to get defensive or debate them or judge them badly.  Actively listening to them, instead, can be very disarming.  It shows you to be more "human" than they likely thought you were, and makes it more likely that (1) they will listen to you later, and (2) you can begin to de-escalate and potentially even resolve your conflict with them, rather than escalating it further if you respond more hostilely. 

Why: As I just said, active listening can be very helpful in conflict situations because it can surprise and calm down the speaker who would otherwise be geared up for a fight.  If instead of fighting, you express sincere interest in what they are saying, it makes it much more likely that the speaker will really tell you what what is making them angry--so you can address their anger constructively.  Similarly, they are likely to explain what their interests and needs are--and, as such, make the conflict easier to address, if not resolve.  Active listening builds trust and respect, allows for the relase of strong emotions without hurting relationships, reduces tension, delves deeply into a situation to figure out what is really going on, and creates an atmosphere that is condusive to effective problem solving. 

For more information on this topic, see, 

Question for You:

HD8: Listening: Have you done this in a particularly tricky or difficult conflict situation?  Has "simple listening" ever changed the course of a conflict dramatically?  Tell us about it!  (Answer below in an email and we will post your answer here!)