Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 11, 2011

Empathy and Reflective Listening

Last weekend, I attended a workshop lead by therapist David Kahn.  David was  giving an overview of motivational interviewing, but he talked a lot about empathy and reflective listening. A lot of what he said was familiar to me, as it is to any counselor.  We learn about these things early on in our graduate school counseling studies.   David’s presentation was a good reminder of how  important these skills are in relationships and interactions with other people. Modeling these skills for clients is very important to me.  Since I can’t do that here, I’d like to share a little about both of these  ideas. 


I think of empathy as a mindset, and communicating empathy as askill. Empathy is about trying to really understand the other person during a conversation.  It is about  putting ourselves in their place so  we can  “get” why they  think or feel the way they do.  Its seeing things  the way they see them. Getting  where they’re coming from involves acceptance without approval or agreement.  I can  put myself in their place and truly understand and take seriously that this is how they  feel or think, whether or not I feel or think the same way.  Not  arguing with what they say doesn’t mean we are agreeing or supporting the position.  It means  we’re helping them feel  that another person is taking the time to try and  truly  get where they’re coming from.  It is not about how we think we would feel or what we would do. Empathy doesn’t make assumptions.   


Just as empathy is not about agreeing, it is also not pity or sympathy.  Pity is our reaction of feeling bad for what someone is going through, but it is more about how we think  they feel, not about  letting them express how they really do feel or think. Its how we think they would feel, based on how we think we would feel  if the same thing happened to us.  For example, we may  say, “I’ll bet he feels terrible about   losing his job.” In actuality, that other person might feel relieved because it was a very toxic work environment or because they wanted to  have time to go back to school, move to a different area, or for some other reason.  Pity is about  assumptions.  We assume he would feel  terrible because we would feel terrible.


Empathy is  also not about rescueing a person.  Rescueing comes from our felt need to “do something” to “make” them feel better. Empathy is not about our feelings or needs. It is about the other person’s feelings and needs. It is about being with them  as they  are who they are dealing with whatever  difficulty they’re dealing with at the moment. If they want our help  solving a particular problem, they can ask for that help or for our input. Chances are, that’s not what they want. Most times, other people just want  someone they know cares about them to hear them out and seem interested in what they’re really saying. If we don’t allow for that first, people often feel  as though  we’re  just interested in  putting a bandaid on what’s going on and  “making them feel better.”  The thing is, a lot of times, if we  resist the urge to do that and  listen for a while to gather more information, we’ll figure out that what we  thought at first needed to be “fixed” isn’t even truly what bothers them.  Being in a hurry to  say or do something to “help” may mean we both miss out on  a lot of insight. A lot of times, if we provide a nonjudgmental  space for another person to talk something through, they’ll come up with their own  solution and let us know what they’ve realized through  the conversation.  


So, if empathy  is about really knowing someone and how they’re thinking and feeling to be able to share the feeling or  way of thinking for a few minutes, how do we do that? Techniques for  showing empathy and  communicating that we really do understand are not  all that difficult; they’re just different than how we’re used to communicating, a lot of times.


The first thing we do is Ask open ended questions (what or how vs  Did you…?  Are you…?). We are inviting the person to tell us more, to share more information about themselves and their experiences. Then, we respond to what they say since they  have to give a more expansive answer than  just a yes or no.  We don’t go on to  the next question immediately.  First, we want to make sure the person knows we heard them, and more importantly, that we listened.


This can be accomplished  through something called reflective listening. In reflective listening, we don’t just give some half-hearted minimal  reaction or “courtesy response.” Reflective listening is a process of being  completely focused on the other person and what they’re  communicating. It is about    concentrating on their words, but also their  expressions,  tone, body language, etc. We  try and use our own  body language, eye contact, tone, expressions,  and words to  show them we care and are interested. We repeat and rephrase so they know we got what they are saying.


Reflective listening isn’t just repeating or rephrasing, though.  Its about adding something to what they say.  It takes them further or deeper  into what was said.  When we really listen, we  pay attention to more than just the first few words they  say. It involves more work because we are looking for the deeper meaning. Reflective listening is used to  get at the  feelings behind the words.  It is going a step beyond what they say to another level. Deep reflection  offers a different, richer   perspective   on what they’re saying. 


If we’re listening well enough  to do this, the person talking feels truly understood. Feeling understood often leads to them talking more, and sharing more so we get to know them better. This can  also help the other person,  understand themselves better. When we reflect back a deeper feeling or meaning, this increases their self-awareness and insight.   Hearing it back often helps them ask themselves more questions or  discover something else important about what’s going on with them. Reflective listening helps the other person to really hear themselves.  People often say to me, “There’s something about saying things out loud…”  When we’re being empathetic and using reflective listening, they  are free to focus on what they’re saying  because they’re not distracted by how we’re responding. Our responses help move  the conversation along, but don’t disrupt their train of thought.


We can state back what the person  is feeling or what is underneath the  words themselves.  This can be done by  saying something like, “It sounds like you might be feeling…”  Then, they can telll us if they do actually feel that way or not.  We can  invite them to share more and   repeat or  paraphrase phrases or parts of statements that seem  truly important. Reflective listening can also involve summarizing to make sure we’re still on the same page.  As  the counselor or caring listener, we want to be where they are, not in front of them or behind them.  It gives us the chance to make sure we’re understanding correctly, as well.  We offer a summary and the client or person sharing can say whether we got everything they said or not. 


Reflective listening can be very powerful.  It can  help  the other person  calm down because they feel  supported and  less alone.  They feel as though someone else is taking them seriously and helping them feel as though what is going on with them is important.  They feel  cared about because someone else put time and energy into  hearing them out.  If we  give the person a little time and space,  they often eventually tell us how they’re thinking about handling the problem and how much better they feel, even though we didn’t  offer  any particular feedback.


Reflective listening and related skills of communicating and  showing empathy  can improve any relationship in your life.  Simply getting into the mindset of  wanting to understand and being curious about what is going on  in that other person’s head and heart can help you automatically be a more reflective listener.  A search on google or Amazon  will give you plenty of additional information on this topic.  Look for opportunities to  practice these skills during your interactions with others and these habits will become more automatic.



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