Empathic Listening Skills

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of “How to Solve Employee Problems Before They Begin: Resolving Conflict in the Real World” by Scott Warrick, JD, MLHR, CEQC, SHRM-SCP.

Empathic Listening is a critical skill to master. It includes all the skills of active listening but goes a step further. Empathic Listening requires the Receiver to also listen from the Sender’s point of view. Humans are typically bad at using this skill. We tend to listen to others from our own point of view because we believe ours is the correct and only one that matters, which is patently false. Think of it this way: If someone in their twenties is going to communicate with a 50-year-old, they are going to have to look at the situation from both their own point of view and the other person’s point of view in order to fully understand where the other is coming from.

Trying to be more empathetic means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and asking yourself what it’s like to be:

  • Nearing retirement and afraid of losing your job
  • A minority
  • Of a different religion than your own
  • Homeless
Four Reasons Empathic Listening Is a Critical Skill

1. Empathic listening burns off adrenaline.

Say you work in a retail store. A customer rushes up to you, terribly upset over a return she was trying to make with one of your employees. She is angry and she intends to take it all out on you.

Now you have a good explanation for why the return cannot be made the way the customer wants it done. Still, you have an emotional child throwing a temper tantrum right in front of you. If you try to explain why her return cannot be made while she is going off into a fit of rage, what do you think will happen?

From your perspective, you feel like you can resolve this issue with logic. If you could get this customer to see your perspective and get her to listen to the facts, everything would be fine. I mean, you are just trying to help her understand how she can get what she wants, right?


If you jump right in with your reasoning while your customer is in the middle of this fit, what do you think she will hear? Excuses, excuses, excuses! Your customer is most likely expecting you to try to wiggle out of any responsibility, and as soon as you start providing an explanation without listening to her side first—bam! It all becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. She knew you were going to do this! She knew you were not going to take any responsibility.

Think about it: You are trying to logically explain the facts of this situation to a very angry person. Your customer’s brain is flooding with adrenaline and cortisol, so trying to explain yourself to her is probably going to enrage her even more. So what can you say to someone who is this upset?

Nothing. There isn’t anything you can say that is going to fix the situation. Instead, you need to let the person vent. You keep your cool and tell the person empathetic statements such as, “I see,” or “I understand. I would be upset and frustrated, too.” You are not agreeing with the person, but you are validating her point of view. You are telling this person that you understand and can fully empathize with her situation and frustration. In other words, you listened to this person empathically.

Not enraging your customer further will allow her to burn off this adrenaline. You can always tell when an angry person has burned off their adrenaline because they “hit the wall.” They run out of energy. Their voice falters, their shoulders drop, and they look exhausted. After this happens, you now can talk to them logically. You now can parrot back to the customer what you just heard her say so she will know you were listening and understand.

If she acknowledges that you understand, then you can give her a “Reward” before disagreeing with her.

“I understand why you are upset. I’d be upset too. I can take care of this for you, but we cannot take the return the way you want…”

Therefore, whenever you find yourself in a conflict situation, you start with empathic listening in order to disarm someone who has been emotionally hijacked.

2. Listening is respect.

We live in a world where we feel disrespected on a daily basis. Unfortunately, everyone is so busy trying to get their own agendas accomplished that we often don’t take the time to concern ourselves with anyone else. To have someone actually take the time to listen to our concerns these days is a rarity. That is why most companies offer such lousy customer service: They want to rush through your problem and give you an answer fast so that they feel like they don’t have to listen to what you are saying. However, failing to listen to another person’s perspective tells that person you don’t care what they think. It’s disrespectful.

Therefore, asking someone to explain their perspective and giving “rewards” such as “I see,” or “I understand” shows respect. 

3. You might learn something.

Think of yourself playing poker. Are you a better poker player if you know what the other person is holding? Of course you are!

Then why would you not want to know what cards the other person is holding in a conflict situation? When you ask another person to “Tell me your side,” that is what you are really doing. You are saying, “Show me your cards.”

That is one of the best reasons for engaging in empathic listening. Great lawyers will do this when they are litigating a case. The first argument they will examine is actually the other side’s in order to figure out how the other side is going to argue. They then ask questions such as, “Do I have an answer for this argument?” or “Do I need to re-evaluate my position here?”

Why would you not want to get all of the information you can get before you openly state what you think and maybe avoid looking foolish?

4. Everything is a human Rorschach.

There is an old saying: Whatever you say about others tells me a lot more about you than it does about the other person. Why do you want to start a conflict situation by engaging in Empathic Listening? Because it will tell you how the other person thinks.

For example, if you show someone a Rorschach inkblot and that person says, “I see a Halloween mask,” or “I see a dog’s face,” or “I see a smiling clown,” that tells me how that person’s mind works. That is a pretty normal person.

However, if that person says something like, “I see two nuclear missiles colliding in midair” and then smiles, you know that person has issues. Empathic Listening will certainly give you additional information, but more importantly, it will help you understand how that other person thinks.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of “How to Solve Employee Problems Before They Begin: Resolving Conflict in the Real World” by Scott Warrick, JD, MLHR, CEQC, SHRM-SCP.

Scott Warrick JD, MLHR, CEQC, SHRM-SCP, has been an employment and labor attorney, HR professional, and speaker for more than three decades. His clients range from small organizations to Fortune 500 companies to governmental institutions. He travels the country presenting seminars on such topics as employment law resolving conflict, diversity, and general differences. He is the author of “How to Solve Employee Problems Before They Begin: Resolving Conflict in the Real World.” For more information, visit: www.scottwarrick.com.

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