Empathetic listening is a technique for listening actively so as to improve mutual trust and understanding, often used to create an environment for collaborative problem-solving and fruitful discussion.
Problems and Purpose
Empathetic listening, also known as empathic, active, or reflective listening, refers to “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust." The technique can be essential to “the success of a negotiation or mediation,” particularly discussions are highly emotional or prone to deadlock in deliberations. In order to appropriately respond to a speaker during discussions, individuals must first accurately interpret their message, which this tool enables.
The empathetic listening technique “enables the disputants to release their emotions, reduces tensions, encourages the surfacing of information, and creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem-solving.”
Origins and Development
The term “empathy” has its contemporary origins in 1909 when “Cornell psychologist Edward B. Titchener termed “empathy” the English equivalent for the German “Einfühlung” (“feeling into”)”, referring to the capacity to lose one’s self-awareness by fusing their identity with the object of perception. In other words, it is the ability to understand the position of another by placing yourself in their proverbial shoes. Beginning as a topic of study for interpersonal communications scholars, empathic listening was originally studied within the dyadic and therapeutic context. In the 1960s, David Berlo theorized about empathy in speech communication as existing in two forms: inference based on similar prior experiences and role-taking. Berlo was one of the first to insist upon the importance of empathic understanding in successful communication, with his ideas being expanded on by contemporary sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Psychotherapist Carl Rogers went on to qualify empathetic understanding as understanding the “inner world” of another without losing one’s own identity. For Rogers, empathetic communication had the purpose of facilitating personal growth in the individuals involved. As such, empathetic listening has moved beyond its original psychotherapy context to be used as a communication tool in education, nursing, and marketing.
One of the first mediators to write about empathetic listening as a technique was William Simkin in 1971, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He noted that successful mediation would require not only understanding, but the ability to project this understanding to the respective parties; in order to do so, mediators ought to consider “the emotional background of an issue and the personalities involved” just as much as the “facts” through empathic listening.
How it Works
Empathetic listening is “the process of the listener attending to the conversational partner to identify the partner’s perspective and feelings” in order to reach greater understanding, so as to support the partner’s welfare and well-being with their response. Empathetic listeners absorb information in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging the “speaker in a way that invites the communication to continue, and provides a limited but encouraging response” so that the focus remains on the speaker’s expression. To do so, empathic listeners allow the other parties to dominate the discussion, being carefully attentive and not interrupting. They often use open-ended questions, and reflect the feelings being expressed by the speaker back to them.
Empathetic listeners are actively involved in conversations, taking care to indicate to the speaker that they are absorbing the information and that they are sensitive to the emotions being expressed. They often provide this indication by demonstrating that they remember information, asking for clarification when needed, and reflecting the emotions back to the speaker. When it is time to respond, they ask questions or paraphrase what was said, while “using nonverbal signals and backchannel cues” to show their acknowledgement of the speaker’s message.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Empathetic listening is considered “a core component of competent communication” and has been associated with outcomes for listeners that have been positive. These outcomes include “more satisfying friendships and intimate relationships, better understanding” and increased perceptions of credibility and likeability; individuals who engage in empathetic listening are also often seen to be more persuasive. In mediation settings, more effective outcomes have been observed, with consensus able to be reached, even in intensely emotional circumstances.
Empathetic listening is a useful technique for encouraging the “surfacing of important information, [reducing] defensive, and [creating] an environment conducive to collaborative problem-solving.”
However, there are “few validated instruments to measure empathic listening,” a necessary prerequisite to being able to test its effects. However, Graham D. Bodie has developed an Active-Empathic Listening (AEL) scale that shows promise in being able to measure empathy, a direct outcome of empathic listening. Bodie conducted several studies that demonstrated both construct validity and inter-rater reliability for his measurement. However, there remains a lack of a “unifying theory that unravels the tangle of underlying effects, results, and processes” of empathetic listening.
    Salem, Richard. "Empathic Listening." Beyond Intractability, edited by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, 2003. Retrieved from https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic_listening
 Edward B. Titchener, Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes (New York, 1909), quoted in Ronald C. Arnett and Gordon Nakagawa, “The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique,” Communication Education 32, no. 4 (1983): 369. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248939772_The_assumptive_roots_of_empathic_listening_A_critique
 Ronald C. Arnett and Gordon Nakagawa, “The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique,” Communication Education 32, no. 4 (1983): 368.
 David E. Berlo, The Process of Communication (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960): 119, quoted in Ronald C. Arnett and Gordon Nakagawa, “The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique,” Communication Education 32, no. 4 (1983): 369
 Ronald C. Arnett and Gordon Nakagawa, “The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique,” Communication Education 32, no. 4 (1983): 369.
 Carl R. Rogers, “The Interpersonal Relationship: The Core of Guidance,” Harvard Educational Review, 32 (1962): 420. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282971859_The_Interpersonal_Relationship_The_Core_of_Guidance
 Ronald C. Arnett and Gordon Nakagawa, “The assumptive roots of empathic listening: A critique,” Communication Education 32, no. 4 (1983): 370.
 Larry E. Sullivan, "Empathetic Listening." In The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. Larry E. Sullivan, 175. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009). Retrieved from http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/behavioralsciences/n868.xml
 Richard Salem, “The Benefits of Empathic Listening.” Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. (Boulder, Colorado: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, 2003), https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic_listening
 Salem, “The Benefits of Empathic Listening.”
 Terrence L. Chmielewski, "Empathic Listening," in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods., ed. Mike Allen (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2017), 413-416. Retrieved from http://methods.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-communication-research-methods/i4553.xml?fromsearch=true
   Richard Salem, “The Benefits of Empathic Listening.” Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. (Boulder, Colorado: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, 2003), https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening
        Terrence L. Chmielewski, "Empathic Listening," 413-416. Retrieved from http://methods.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-communication-research-methods/i4553.xml?fromsearch=true
Practical Guide on Empathic Listening: http://learninginaction.com/PDF/ELSR.pdf
Active Listening: The Art of Empathetic Conversation: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/active-listening/
Basics of Empathetic Listening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALIvGIjCBRY