Listening & Empathy

A healthy foundation in a relationship is built on warmth, empathy, and respect. (source)

The acronym, “SOLAR TEA,” that I shared in my last post, is a wonderful way to build warmth.

*If you missed my first post on listening, you can find it here.

But how do we build empathy?  And first of all, what is empathy?

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;

 also  :  the capacity for this”

I don’t know about you, but I find that definition to be a little overwhelming.

Here’s a simpler definition:

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Ok, one last definition.

Equipping Ministries International defines empathy as “communicating accurate understanding.”

Empathy is not only understanding and sharing in with another person’s feelings, but also communicating understanding that is accurate.

There are a few people in my life who do this particularly well, and communicating with them is so refreshing!

Empathy in listening helps the speaker to feel understood and to better understand themselves.  It also helps the listener make sure they accurately understand what the speaker is saying. (source)

Knowing this, how then do we practice listening with empathy?

When someone is looking for understanding (i.e. not just asking a question or asking for help with something “What’s the weather today?” or “Can you help me study for this test?”), then you can use “reflective” (aka “active”) listening.

Here are the 3 steps of active/reflective listening as presented in EMI’s listening workbook:


  1. Use a tentative opening


“It sounds like…?”

“So you’re feeling…?”

“If I am hearing correctly…?”

“It seems…?”


  1. Identify the feeling content

Identify feeling words (i.e. worn out, refreshed, awkward, invisible, excluded, glum, disappointed, curious, happy).


  1. Identify the thought content

“Because ________ ?”


Here is an example of the 3 parts in action:

If one of my sisters was complaining about her friends going to a movie without her, I could reply with something like this.

  1. Use a tentative opening: “It sounds like you’re feeling…”
  1. Identify the feeling content: “left out or excluded”
  1. Identify the thought content: “because your friends went to a movie and did not invite you”


Then I would end with something tentative such as “is that how you’re feeling?”

Putting it all together, the sentence would be:

“It sounds like you’re feeling left out because your friends went to a movie and didn’t invite you.  Is that how you’re feeling?”

Making the statement tentative allows the person you’re listening to to either affirm that your understanding is correct, or to say that it is not correct, and then try to communicate what it is that are trying to communicate.

The primary goal is not to correctly identify the exact emotion or reason behind the emotion that the other person is feeling, as much as it is to show them that you want to understand what they’re feeling, and to give them a space to open up and explore what it is they’re feeling, so they can better understand themselves.

Throughout a conversation, you can continuously respond and reflect back to the other person using active listening.

As simple as this may seem, it is actually very powerful.

Nations go to war against each other over lack of good communication.

Speaking louder, hauling out bigger guns, or having more dramatic hand gestures is not what will bring about understanding.

If we ever hope to have more peace, in the world, we need more mediation and listening.

We desperately need more empathy.

I’ll leave you with two videos about listening and empathy:


The image in this post is one I took of an art installment.  Here’s more info about it!



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