Updated: May 19, 2020
The Task of Active Listening
Empathy is about building rapport, openness, and trust between people. When it's missing, people are less likely to consider your needs and feelings.
The best way to build empathy is to make sure the other person knows that they are heard and understood. That means you need to be an active listener. There are three specific tasks to use, depending on the situations. You can listen for 1.) Information, 2.) Affirmation and 3.) Inflammation.
1. Information – Getting Clear
Their goal, as speaker: to clarify the facts and what is wanted, so there is no confusion or misunderstanding.
Your goal, as listener: to clarify your understanding of what the speaker is saying, to check and confirm your understanding of the facts; plus ask about anything relevant that they might not have said…
Ask Questions: find out about needs, instructions, context, timing, costs etc.
Check Back: be sure you heard and understood the relevant details.
Summarize: make sure you both agree on the facts.
As listener, you want to hear your speaker to confirm something like: “Yes, that’s it, that’s what I want” so you are both clear. Don’t jump straight into solutions. Collect information. Find out how it is on the other side first. After this you will want to share your own perspective (see Appropriate Assertiveness).
2. Affirmation: Affirming, Acknowledging and Exploring the Impact of the Problem
Their goal, as speaker: to talk about how the problem affects them.
Your goal, as listener: to help the speaker really hear what they are saying and/or to hear that you acknowledge their feelings. Here, you recognize that the other person benefits when you take time to hear their problem.
Listen: Give the speaker your full attention.
Reflect Back: to the speaker their feelings, and perhaps the content of the problem with a single statement of acknowledgement periodically. This is called mirroring.
Explore: If time permits, assist the speaker to find greater clarity and understanding for themselves. You might take several interchanges reflecting back the speaker’s feelings over a longer period of time, so that you both understand the difficulty in more depth. “Yes, that’s what I feel”, means that they have explored what they are saying and they know they have been understood.
Your goal is not to offering advice, because it won’t really help. But this process helps the speaker find greater clarity and understanding of the problem for themselves. Active listening builds relationship and trust.
Note: Don’t ignore or deny their feelings. Read both the non-verbal and verbal communication to assess feelings. Check back with them about their feelings as well as the content, even though they may only be telling you about the content. If you’re not sure how they feel, ask them e.g. “How do you feel about that?”, “How did that affect you?”
Reflect back to them what you hear them saying, so they know you understand. If you get it wrong, ask an open question and try again e.g. “How do you see the situation?” Allow some silences to grow in the conversation when necessary. Thoughtful silence can be rich soil.
Remember that active listening is a method of helping the other person focus on what's below the words, and gets to the heart of the unresolved issues. Notice sighs and body shifts as they often indicate some insight or acceptance. Pause before asking something like, “So how is it now?”
3. Inflammation: Defusing a Highly Emotional Complaint or Blame Against You
Their goal, as speaker: to tell you that you are the problem.
Your goal, as listener: to ensure the speaker knows that you have heard what they are saying and to defuse the strong emotion. This is not the same as agreeing with them.
(P.S. We know that this is not easy and will take plenty of practice and deep breathing!) When someone is emotionally blaming you, you will want to defend yourself. You feel attacked! Before getting defensive, take a pause and move into active listening. It’s common to blame the other person, but not useful. Acknowledge that it is difficult to be objective when emotion is high. Active listening is an effective tool to reduce emotion of a situation. Every time you correctly label the emotion the other person is feeling, the intensity of it dissipates. The speaker starts to feel heard and understood. Once the emotional level of the conflict has been reduced, reasoning abilities for both of you can function more effectively.
When someone is telling you they are unhappy with you, criticizing you, complaining about you, or just getting it off their chest:
Don't Defend Yourself. At this point, defense will only add fuel to the fire; they won't hear you and they will argue.
Deal with Their Emotions First. People shout because they don’t think they are being heard. Make sure they know they are – that you are hearing how angry or upset they are. Name the emotions/feelings as you pick them up.
Acknowledge Their Side. This does not mean you agree with them, only that you are registering their viewpoint e.g. “I can see why you’re so upset”.
Slow down and draw them out further. Explore gently with them if there is more behind the emotion. Once the heat is out of the conversation, you might say how it is for you without denying how it is for them. Ask what could be done now to make it OK again. If they heat up again, go straight back to active listening. When the speaker says something like, “Yes, that’s what I said”, they know the listener has taken in their point. Move towards options for change or solution. Ask what they really want, or what they want now.
For Them To Change, You Have to Change First
One of the first things you might need to change is your approach. Don’t take the bait and retaliate. Don’t start justifying or defending. Stay focused, disciplined, and empathetic, and continue active listening until they’ve calmed down. Use phrases like, “I can see how upset you are”, “You feel like you’ve reached your limit”, “Have I got it right?”.
Keep on reflecting back as accurately as you can until they calm down from the high emotion. If it is working they will explain everything in some detail, but as the interchange continues the heat should be going out of the conversation. When this happens, you have really achieved something! Eventually they will be ready and able to listen to you.
We didn’t make this stuff up. The skills in this article are based on over 30 years of experience in conflict resolution and psychology. The Conflict Resolution Network (CRN) is a resource center that offers high-quality free and low-cost training materials for educational programs that move people and systems away from adversarial approaches towards cooperation and sustainable solutions. For more information and access to their absolutely incredible (and extraordinarily accessible) resources, we recommend you visit www.crnhq.org.