Active listening and empathy for human connection

The combination of active listening and empathy can improve relationships between couples, families and coworkers.

An older woman consoling an older man on a couch.

How many times do you find yourself in a conversation with someone, waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can say what you want to say? Even further, you might then expect the other person to completely tune into what you are saying.

This common experience shows a lack of active listening, because you are only thinking about how you want to respond. You may as well be speaking different languages with the lack of understanding that results from this type of communication.

Communication that leads to real human connection involves active listening and empathy. Active listening includes eye contact as well as verbal and non-verbal acknowledgments that you are listening. This includes things like nodding your head, responding affirmatively and asking questions for clarification. Empathy involves reflection, validation and a genuine concern for how another is thinking or feeling. This combination of active listening and empathy can be referred to as empathetic listening, can improve relationships of all kinds, from couples and families to friends and coworkers.

Everyone wants to feel validated for speaking their thoughts and feelings. Being brave enough to share with another person is a vulnerable position to be in. Think about how you would want someone to respond if you share something sad, frustrating or fearful you are experiencing with a close friend. For example, “I think my husband wants a divorce.” Consider these two potential responses and how they would make you feel.

  1. Whoa! I am glad I am not you. Want to go shopping?
  2. That must be so hard. Thank you for sharing with me. I am here for you.

The first response might leave one feeling dismissed. So why do people respond like that? Perhaps the comment comes from a place of the listener being uncomfortable with hearing something that taps into their own fears or vulnerability. The listener may feel the need to shut down the conversation and move to a safer space for them. Sometimes they just don’t know what they are supposed to say.

The second response, however, might make one feel heard, seen and supported. That is because the second response is empathetic. It shows the listener heard what the other person was saying, validating (that must be so hard) and expressing concern (you are not alone).

So how do you know what to say or not to say when someone shares something difficult with you? Sometimes, the best thing to do is to sit and listen. Brene Brown, who has spent years studying the concepts of courage, shame, vulnerability and empathy, says it best in her book "Daring Greatly":

“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You’re not alone.'”

Many of us think we are great listeners. But listening is a skill that takes intention and practice.

Michigan State University Extension provides classes to help people learn and practice critical communication skills that can lead to healthier relationships. For more information on communication, visit our Healthy Relationships website or consider signing up for a class through our online self-referral form.

Did you find this article useful?