Listening Well: An Experiment in Empathy


“An empathic response is restrained, largely silent; following, not leading, it encourages the speaker to go deeper into his or her experience.” Empathy does not mean, as we often think, “worrying about, praising, cheering up, gushing, consoling, or even encouraging. It means understanding.” (Nichols, 2009, p. 84)

There are so many important factors that contribute to great communication.

One critical piece is our ability to respond to the other person with empathy. “Oh, of course!” we think. “I care about the other person!” But how often are we able to sit uncomfortably in the tension of what someone shares (without trying to escape the discomfort), creating sufficient space for the other person to talk while we actually turn off our desire to fix? Or turn off our desire to be right? Or make a point or to just be heard? Or contribute to the conversation?

Here’s a little experiment… Let’s see how often you choose empathic responses in your conversations. AND, let’s see what you notice about the conversations where you do fully engage with empathy!

  1. Choose 1 person – maybe your significant other, child, co-worker, close friend, parent – and pay attention over the next few days.
  2. Focus on following what the other person is sharing. Track with them, encourage him or her to share more. Assume there might be more to what they are talking about! Ask questions. Say, “Can you tell me more about that?” Ask about how this thing is impacting them.
  3. Think about what you’re going to say before saying it. If you’re going to offer your perspective or opinion, try to generate a solution, console, make your own point, or make the other person’s pain or frustration smaller – see if you can ask another question, instead.
  4. During the conversation or after it’s over, take a couple minutes to evaluate how it went. Reflect on whether that conversation felt different than your typical interactions with that person. How challenging was it for you to make this shift? Did you experience the other person in a new or different way?

Empathy is one of those important muscles we can exercise if we want to strengthen our ability to listen and communicate well in relationships. My hypothesis is that a little bit of thoughtful, intentional effort will probably make a pretty significant difference over time.

(Adapted from “The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships” by Michael Nichols, 2009.)

Mindy Pierce, MA , LPC
MPierce @