The basis of quality conversations and of good coaching is empathic listening.

Most people listen, not with intent to understand, but to reply.  Empathic listening, however, is listening with understanding and imaginatively being in tune with another person’s feelings and reflecting that understanding and those feelings.  We use empathic listening when we can hear the other person has a problem.  We need to recognise that the presenting problem is often not the real problem and listen long enough to assist the person and validate their responses.

Why would you want to be an effective Empathic Listener?

  • Helps the other person clarify their issues.
  • Builds understanding and creates strong relationships.
  • Has the other person feeling validated, heard, understood at a deep level.
  • Allows them to express and explore feelings without feeling threatened or judged.
  • Helps diffuse their emotions.
  • Lets them know we trust them and empowers them to reach their own solutions.

What makes a good Empathic Listener?

We need to be able to express the other person’s point of view better than they can.  Generally, they are so close to the problem that is often hard for them to separate the different aspects of an issue.  Because we are listening externally we can pick up things that they have missed, assumptions that they had not clarified or relationships that they had overlooked.  However, we cannot do this when we are defensive, or when we are only listening through the filters of our own experience, or conditioning.  If you are a good Empathic Listener, you will:

  • Put your agenda to one side.
  • Check who you are Being – Be open, flexible and non-judgmental.
  • Get inside the other person’s world.
  • Listen for long enough that they feel understood and are emotionally neutral.

Empathic listening is a challenging skill to learn.  It requires true concentration on what the other person is saying.  Many times this means listening to more than what is being said and being sensitive to the nonverbal clues in the message also.  In addition, this skill involves addressing the feeling or emotions in the message.  For many people, this is uncomfortable, and yet that is where the true power of empathic listening lies.


  • Use Empathic Listening when the “other person” has a problem, issue or challenge.
  • Be willing to let them discover their own solutions or options not yours.
  • Get an indication that the other person wants to talk about the concern with you.
  • You genuinely feel accepting of the other person and the problem being expressed; you don’t have to like the problem or take pleasure in hearing about it, just feel okay about listening to it.
  • The time and place seem right; don’t start listening to a serious concern with only five minutes to spare.
  • Remember the presenting problem is often not the real problem.  You need to listen long enough to uncover the source of the concern.
  • Don’t be in a hurry to move to solutions.  Wait until they are emotionally neutral and ready.
  • Listen to the said and the unsaid, the words and the music, with your eyes and with your heart and reflect back your understanding of the issue.

How to listen empathically:

You are holding up a mirror reflecting back what the person says and what you “hear” is unsaid.  If you move to your solutions you have taken on their problem and disempowered them.  You are just there to assist them to clarify what they think and feel.  Don’t start every empathic listening response the same way.  It can become monotonous and can create the impression that you are just using a mechanical technique without genuine concern.  Here are some phrases you can use when you are reflecting back what you heard:

  • “It seems that you feel…”
  • “What I hear you saying …”
  • “Sounds like…”
  • “From your point of view …”

Secondly, not every statement requires an empathic listening response.  Sometimes, you need to use passive listening skills: silence, acknowledgements and door openers e.g. If someone has sent a very clear expression of their feelings, an acknowledgement of “uh-huh” may be more appropriate than a near word-for-word repetition.

Mastering the skill of Empathic Listening means dropping one’s own agenda and understanding the world from another’s viewpoint.


Conflicts are inevitable and serve a healthy function in every relationship.  The key is not to avoid or deny conflicts but to learn how to approach and resolve them in a way that actually benefits the relationship.

Many of us do not have a win/win paradigm around conflict. We either feel that we have to win and the other loses, in which case the “loser” usually takes the position “I reluctantly accept your solution but resent your using your power over me and will find a way of getting back at you the first chance I get.” Or we lose and the other wins – one person yields to the demands of the other rather than stand up for their needs.  We do this for any number of reasons: fear of losing the relationship, dislike of emotional conflict, desire to be a “nice” guy etc.

The win/win paradigm leaves both parties feeling heard and that their needs are being met.  Both parties are empowered, self-esteem is preserved, the relationship is enhanced and helpful change is the result.

How do we do this?

By using confrontive “I” Messages.

They have four components: “I”, Behaviour, Feelings, Effects.

  • Use the pronoun “I” – “You” messages are usually blaming or judging.
  • Describe how the incident made you “feel”.
  • Include a description of the “actual event or conversation” that created a problem for you.
  • Describe the “effect” on you e.g. “Bill, I am really frustrated when you are late for our appointments because it messes up my schedule and I run late for other meetings.  or “Ms Jones, I am getting concerned that you said you’d mail me the specifications and they haven’t arrived and that means I won’t get the quote to you before the deadline.”
  • Be detailed not vague in your descriptions.
  • Don’t add words that blame, criticise or exaggerate.
  • Describe the concrete practical effects on you.
  • Be authentic about your feelings and let people hear the strength of your feelings.

“You” Messages:

“You” messages express judgements, guesses, labels and commands or threats.  Since no-one likes to be branded or told what to do, “You” messages generally create hurt feelings, defensiveness and resistance in others.  No-one likes a finger pointed at them and to be told “You really screwed up” or “You are an idiot”.

The Confrontive “I” message works because it gives people a choice about how they respond.  It will hopefully have them take some responsibility for how their behaviour has affected others and be willing to resolve the situation.

Shifting Gears:

Resolving conflict requires a combination of Confrontive “I” Messages and Empathic Listening and we call it Shifting Gears.

That is, you express your Confrontive “I” Message and when the other person has responded you empathetically listen and indicate that you have heard their point of view, have understood their issues and concerns and then you restate your “I” message until you feel that both of you have lowered your emotional charge sufficiently to come up with a mutual, win/win solution.

© The Impetus Team 2008

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