Last week, my buddy and I were talking about life and the changing world around us. And with all the recent shifts in social, economic, and political climates, we had plenty to talk about.
One of the best things about our 20-year friendship is that although we share many core beliefs, we approach life from very different perspectives—sometimes polar opposite positions.
Normally, our discussions tend to be on the lighter side. We compare our views on current events and give each other the “benefit of our wisdom.” But about two hours into this conversation, it started heating up. As my friend was going deeper into his feelings about global and political issues close to his heart, his tone began to escalate—and he eventually started to erupt like a volcano.
When emotions run this high, things can get uncomfortable fast. My natural inclination would be to steer the conversation back to neutral ground. But I quickly realized this time was different—he needed to vent. So I remained quiet and just listened.
I am learning empathic listening.
Empathic listening is more than just practicing good listening skills like eye contact and nodding in acknowledgement. It includes holding a space for someone and allowing them to completely explore their thoughts and feelings in the moment—especially if they are expressing anger, sadness, or other powerful emotions. Empathic listening means showing respect by giving someone the gift of our undivided attention.
The key to empathic listening is remembering that it’s not about us—it’s about allowing others to be heard, acknowledged, and validated. Listening empathically involves giving no advice, no opinions, and no response; we simply hold the space and allow someone to be heard—even if they start to unravel. It requires withholding judgment and not trying to fix them or solve their issues.
Another reason why empathic listening is so powerful is because it’s based on having a mutual respect for differences. Whether we agree with what others are saying or not, the foundations for healthy relationships are built on being respected, not rejected. This is how we learn from one another and how our bonds endure through challenging and tough times.
Here are some tips for becoming a better empathic listener:
Acknowledge the timing. If you find yourself moving into a potentially sensitive dialogue, you may have to consider whether the timing is conducive to the discussion. When a conversation starts increasing in intensity, the momentum can be difficult to slow down; however, there is a time and place for everything. You may have to suggest continuing the conversation at a better time or a more private location. Acknowledging timing demonstrates respect for healthy personal boundaries on both sides.
Eliminate distractions. Empathic listening requires focus. The moment we remove our attention from someone, they may lose momentum and stop talking. Once a discussion turns into an opportunity for empathic listening, reduce potential distractions—silence your phone, take a deep breath, and just listen. Try and keep your attention focused on the other person regardless of what happens around you.
Be willing to suspend judgment. As you are listening, become aware of your own opinions or judgments in response to what they are saying. But don’t voice them—just notice them and immediately return to the conversation. Not replying or responding when we’ve been internally triggered is a sign of respect. Keep holding a space by giving them your undivided attention.
Epiphanies come from within. Don’t interrupt the flow. Sometimes our greatest discoveries happen spontaneously. Remember: When someone is processing their emotions, they’re often coming to an important conclusion—and if you interrupt them, you may be speaking over their moment of truth. Everyone needs to have their own epiphanies. Let them.
In the end, my friend was grateful for the opportunity to be heard and acknowledged. And while empathic listening may not be a skill used frequently, it can always give us the opportunity to exercise empathy, show respect, and deepen our existing relationships with friends and family—just like it did with my buddy last week.
Michael Thomas Sunnarborg helps people maintain balance during transitions in their work, relationships, and life. Learn more at michaelsunnarborg.com