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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Empathic Listening


Empathic Listening

By Richard Salem

The Benefits of Empathic Listening

Empathic listening (also called active listening or reflective listening) is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust. It is an essential skill for third parties and disputants alike, as it enables the listener to receive and accurately interpret the speaker's message, and then provide an appropriate response. The response is an integral part of the listening process and can be critical to the success of a negotiation or mediation. Among its benefits, empathic listening

  1. builds trust and respect,
  2. enables the disputants to release their emotions,
  3. reduces tensions,
  4. encourages the surfacing of information, and
  5. creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.

Though useful for everyone involved in a conflict, the ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets the mediator apart from others involved in the conflict.

Even when the conflict is not resolved during mediation, the listening process can have a profound impact on the parties. Jonathon Chace, associate director of the U.S. Community Relations Service, recalls a highly charged community race-related conflict he responded to more than 30 years ago when he was a mediator in the agency's Mid-Atlantic office. It involved the construction of a highway that would physically divide a community centered around a public housing project. After weeks of protest activity, the parties agreed to mediation. In the end, the public officials prevailed and the aggrieved community got little relief. When the final session ended, the leader of the community organization bolted across the floor, clasped the mediator's hand and thanked him for being "different from the others."

"How was I different?" Chace asked. "You listened," was the reply. "You were the only one who cared about what we were saying."[1]

William Simkin, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and one of the first practitioners to write in depth about the mediation process, noted in 1971 that "understanding has limited utility unless the mediator can somehow convey to the parties the fact that [the mediator] knows the essence of the problem. At that point," he said, "and only then, can (the mediator) expect to be accorded confidence and respect."[2]

Simkin was writing about more than the need to understand and project an understanding of the facts. Understanding "is not confined to bare facts," he said. "Quite frequently the strong emotional background of an issue and the personalities involved may be more significant than the facts." He suggested that mediators apply "sympathetic understanding,"[3] which in reality is empathic listening.

How to Listen with Empathy

Empathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality of another person in order to better understand that person's emotions or feelings. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know, "I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you." The listener unmistakably conveys this message through words and non-verbal behaviors, including body language. In so doing, the listener encourages the speaker to fully express herself or himself free of interruption, criticism or being told what to do. It is neither advisable nor necessary for a mediator to agree with the speaker, even when asked to do so. It is usually sufficient to let the speaker know, "I understand you and I am interested in being a resource to help you resolve this problem."

While this article focuses on mediation, it should be apparent that empathic listening is a core skill that will strengthen the interpersonal effectiveness of individuals in many aspects of their professional and personal lives.[4] Parties to unassisted negotiations -- those that do not involve a mediator -- can often function as their own mediator and increase their negotiating effectiveness through the use of empathy. Through the use of skilled listening these "mediational negotiators" can control the negotiation by their:

  1. willingness to let the other parties dominate the discussion,
  2. attentiveness to what is being said,
  3. care not to interrupt,
  4. use of open-ended questions,
  5. sensitivity to the emotions being expressed, and
  6. ability to reflect back to the other party the substance and feelings being expressed.

The power of empathic listening in volatile settings is reflected in Madelyn Burley-Allen's description of the skilled listener. "When you listen well," Burley-Allen says, "you:

  1. acknowledge the speaker,
  2. increase the speaker's self-esteem and confidence,
  3. tell the speaker, "You are important" and "I am not judging you,"
  4. gain the speaker's cooperation,
  5. reduce stress and tension,
  6. build teamwork,
  7. gain trust,
  8. elicit openness,
  9. gain a sharing of ideas and thoughts, and
  10. obtain more valid information about the speakers and the subject."[5]

To obtain these results, Burly-Allen says, a skilled listener:

  1. "takes information from others while remaining non-judgmental and empathic,
  2. acknowledges the speaker in a way that invites the communication to continue, and
  3. provides a limited but encouraging response, carrying the speaker's idea one step forward."

Empathic Listening in Mediation

Before a mediator can expect to obtain clear and accurate information about the conflict from a party who is emotionally distraught, it is necessary to enable that party to engage in a cathartic process, according to Lyman S. Steil,[6] a former president of the American Listening Association. He defines catharsis as "the process of releasing emotion, the ventilation of feelings, the sharing of problems or frustrations with an empathic listener. Catharsis," he continues, "basically requires an understanding listener who is observant to the cathartic need cues and clues. People who need catharsis will often give verbal and non-verbal cues, and good listeners will be sensitive enough to recognize them. Cathartic fulfillment is necessary for maximized success" at all other levels of communication.

"Cathartic communication," Steil continues, "requires caring, concerned, risk-taking and non-judgmental listening. Truly empathic people suspend evaluation and criticism when they listen to others. Here the challenge is to enter into the private world of the speaker, to understand without judging actions or feelings."

Providing empathic responses to two or more parties to the same conflict should not present a problem for a mediator who follows the basic principles of active listening. The mediator demonstrates objectivity and fairness by remaining non-judgmental throughout the negotiation, giving the parties equal time and attention and as much time as each needs to express themselves.

Parties to volatile conflicts often feel that nobody on the other side is interested in what they have to say. The parties often have been talking at each other and past each other, but not with each other. Neither believes that their message has been listened to or understood. Nor do they feel respected. Locked into positions that they know the other will not accept, the parties tend to be close-minded, distrustful of each other, and often angry, frustrated, discouraged, or hurt.

When the mediator comes onto the scene, he or she continuously models good conflict-management behaviors, trying to create an environment where the parties in conflict will begin to listen to each other with clear heads. For many disputants, this may be the first time they have had an opportunity to fully present their story. During this process, the parties may hear things that they have not heard before, things that broaden their understanding of how the other party perceives the problem. This can open minds and create a receptivity to new ideas that might lead to a settlement.[7] In creating a trusting environment, it is the mediator's hope that some strands of trust will begin to connect the parties and replace the negative emotions that they brought to the table.

Mediator Nancy Ferrell, who formerly responded to volatile community race-related conflicts for the Dallas Office of the U.S. Community Relations Service, questions whether mediation can work if some measure of empathy is not developed between the parties. She describes a multi-issue case involving black students and members of a white fraternity that held an annual "black-face" party at a university in Oklahoma. At the outset, the student president of the fraternity was convinced that the annual tradition was harmless and inoffensive. It wasn't until the mediator created an opportunity for him to listen to the aggrieved parties at the table that he realized the extraordinary impact his fraternity's antics had on black students. Once he recognized the problem, a solution to that part of the conflict was only a step away.

Ferrell seeks clues that the parties will respond to each other with some measure of empathy before bringing them to the table. Speaking of conflicts between parties who had a continuing relationship, she said, "One of my decisions about whether they were ready to meet at the table was whether or not I could get any glimmer of empathy from all sides. ... If I couldn't get some awareness of sensitivity to the other party's position, I was reluctant to go to the table. ... If you can't create empathy, you can't have a relationship. Without that, mediation is not going to work."[8]

George Williams, who was a volunteer mediator at Chicago 's Center for Conflict Resolution after he retired as president of American University, recalled an incident in an entirely different type of dispute in the mid-1980s. The conflict was between a trade school and a student who had been expelled for what appeared to him to be a minor infraction of the rules, shortly after paying his full tuition. After losing his internal appeal, he considered a lawsuit, but chose mediation. The young man fared no better at mediation, yet later profusely thanked Williams for being "the first person who listened to what I had to say."

Listening: A Learnable Skill

As many mediators, including myself, have come to understand, listening is a learnable skill. Unfortunately, it is not typically taught along with other communication skills at home or in school. I spend more time listening than using any other form of communication, yet as a youngster I was never taught the skill. I spent long hours learning to read and write and even had classroom training in public speaking, but I never had a lesson in listening or thought of listening as a learnable skill until I entered the world of mediation as an adult. While some may have had better experiences during their formative years, for many listening is often treated the same as "hearing." We do not ordinarily receive instruction in using our other senses -- smell, sight, touch and taste -- so why give lessons in hearing (sound)? A message that listening was an important skill to learn would have fallen on deaf ears when I was a child. Perhaps now that peer mediation is being taught in many classrooms across the nation, when children are taught to "Listen to your elders," they also will be taught by elders who model good listening skills.

Guidelines for Empathic Listening

Madelyn Burley-Allen offers these guidelines for empathic listening:

  1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior.
  2. Be a sounding board -- allow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical manner.
  3. Don't ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are "grilling" the speaker.
  4. Act like a mirror -- reflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling.
  5. Don't discount the speaker's feelings by using stock phrases like "It's not that bad," or "You'll feel better tomorrow."
  6. Don't let the speaker "hook" you. This can happen if you get angry or upset, allow yourself to get involved in an argument, or pass judgment on the other person.
  7. Indicate you are listening by
    • Providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., "Uh-huh," "I see."
    • Giving nonverbal acknowledgements, e.g., head nodding, facial expressions matching the speaker, open and relaxed body expression, eye contact.
    • Invitations to say more, e.g., "Tell me about it," "I'd like to hear about that."
  8. Follow good listening "ground rules:"
    • Don't interrupt.
    • Don't change the subject or move in a new direction.
    • Don't rehearse in your own head.
    • Don't interrogate.
    • Don't teach.
    • Don't give advice.
    • Do reflect back to the speaker what you understand and how you think the speaker feels.[9]

The ability to listen with empathy may be the most important attribute of interveners who succeed in gaining the trust and cooperation of parties to intractable conflicts and other disputes with high emotional content. Among its other advantages, as Burley-Allen points out, empathic listening has empowering qualities. Providing an opportunity for people to talk through their problem may clarify their thinking as well as provide a necessary emotional release. Thomas Gordon agrees that active listening facilitates problem-solving and, like Burley-Allen's primer on listening,[10] Gordon's "Leadership Effectiveness Training"[11] provides numerous exercises and suggestions for those seeking to strengthen their listening skills.

[1] Richard Salem, "Community Dispute Resolution Through Outside Intervention," Peace & Change Journal VIII, no. 2/3 (1982)

[2] William Simkin, Mediation and the Dynamics of Collective Bargaining (BNA Books, 1971)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Books on effective listening cited in this paper primarily address the topic in one-on-one situations and use examples in both personal and professional settings. Three books by Thomas Gordon all use the same communication models in a variety of settings. They are Gordon's Leadership Effectiveness Training, (Bantam Books, 1977), Teacher Effectiveness Training, (1974), and Parent Effectiveness Training.

[5] Madelyn Burley-Allen, Listening the Forgotten Skill, (John Wiley & sons, 1982). Burley-Allen is a former president of the American Listening Assn.

[6] Lyman K. Steil, "On Listening...and Not Listening," Executive Health, (newsletter, 1981). Dr. Steil is a former president of the American Listening Assn. See also, "Effective Listening," by Steil, Barker and Watson, McGraw Hill, 1983 and "Listening Leaders," Beaver Press, forthcoming, 2003.

[7] Labor mediator Walter Maggiolo wrote that the effective mediator performs the following four essential tasks: (1) Understand and appreciate "the problems confronting the parties;" (2) Impart to the parties "the fact that the mediator knows and appreciates their problems;" (3) create "doubts in the minds of the parties about the validity of the positions they have assumed with respect to the problems;" and (4) surface or suggest "alternative approaches which may facilitate agreement." W. Maggiolo, "Techniques of Mediation," 1985.

[8] Nancy Ferrell, Oral History, Civil Rights Mediation Project, available at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/civil_rights/.

[9] Ibid, 101-102.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Gordon, Leadership Effectiveness Training, (Bantam Books, 1977). See also, Thomas Gordon, Teacher Effectiveness Training (1974).

Use the following to cite this article:
Salem, Richard. "Empathic Listening." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic_listening/>

Sources of Additional, In-depth Information on this Topic

Additional Explanations of the Underlying Concepts:

Online (Web) Sources

Active Listening.
Available at:
Active listening is designed to overcome poor listening practices by requiring parties to listen to and then restate their opponent's statements, emphasizing the feelings expressed as well as the substance. The purpose is to confirm that the listener accurately understands the message sent and acknowledges that message, although the listener is not required to agree.

Conflict Research Consortium Staff. Communication Improvement.
Available at:
This page briefly discusses the impacts of misunderstanding in social conflicts and goes on to make suggestions about how to improve communication between parties.

Dialogic Listening.
Available at:
Dialogic listening is similar to active listening, although it emphasizes conversation as a shared activity and stresses an open-ended, playful attitude toward the conversation. In addition, the parties focus on what is happening between them (rather than each party focusing on what is going on within the mind of the other), and it focuses on the present more than on the past or the future.

Gallozi, Chuck. Misunderstanding.
Available at:
This article discusses misunderstanding, how it arises, and what people can do to eliminate it. Specifically, the author promotes empathic listening as the way toward ending misunderstanding.

Practicing Listening Skills.
Available at:
A one-page list of tips on how to be a better a listener.

Offline (Print) Sources

Salem, Richard. "Community Dispute Resolution Through Outside Intervention." Peace & Change 8:2/3, January 1, 1982.
This essay describes how third parties, through the use of empathetic listening, can help resolve or transform community conflicts.

Thomas, Milt and John Stewart. "Dialogic Listening: Sculpting Mutual Meanings ." In Bridges Not Walls. Edited by Stewart, John, ed. New York: McGraw-hill, 1995.
The authors define and identify three problems with active or empathic listening. They go on to contrast dialogic listening to active or empathic listening and uncover four distinctive characteristics of dialogic listening. Click here for more info.

Steil, Lyman K. Effective Listening: Key to Your Success. Addison Wesley Publishing Company, December 1982.

Madelyn, Burley-Allen. Listening: The Forgotten Skill: A Self-Teaching Guide, 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons, February 1995.
This guide details the key points of effective listening, and explains how one can not only acquire, but also productively use this skill to enhance your business and personal life.

Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children . New York: Three Rivers Press, October 2000.
"P.E.T., or Parent Effectiveness Training, began almost forty years ago as the first national parent-training program to teach parents how to communicate more effectively with kids and offer step-by-step advice to resolving family conflicts so everybody wins. This beloved classic is the most studied, highly praised, and proven parenting program in the world -- and it will work for you. Now revised for the first time since its initial publication, this groundbreaking guide will show you: How to avoid being a permissive parent; How to listen so kids will talk to you and talk so kids will listen to you; How to teach your children to "own" their problems and to solve them; How to use the "No-Lose" method to resolve conflicts." -Amazon.com

Burch, Noel and Thomas Gordon. Teacher Effectiveness Training: The Program Proven to Help Teachers Bring Out the Best in Students. Three Rivers Press, August 26, 2003.
T.E.T. (Teacher Effectivness Training) can mean the difference between an unproductive, disruptive classroom and a cooperative, productive environment in which students flourish and teachers feel rewarded. You will learn: What to do when students give you problems; How to talk so that students will listen; How to resolve conflicts so no one loses and no one gets hurt; How to best help students when they?re having a problem; How to set classroom rules so that far less enforcement is necessary; How to increase teaching and learning time. (Amazon) Click here for more info.

Maggiolo, Walter. Techniques of Mediation. New York: Oceana Publications, December 1985.
This work spells out four essential ingredients a mediator needs to bring to the labor negotiation table: know the problem; let the parties know you understand the issues and their concerns; caste doubt on the soundness of each parties position; and suggest alternatives that each side can live with. It also highlights the importance of not just listening to each, but listening with understanding.

Examples Illustrating this Topic:

Online (Web) Sources

Monroe, Cynthia, Gene Knudsen Hoffman and Leah Green. "Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook about Conflict Transformation." , August 2001
Available at:

This piece covers Gene Knudsen Hoffman's reconciliation process Compassionate Listening. Descriptions of projects in Israel/Palestine and Alaska are described, and lesson plans for training in compassionate listening are included, on topics such as forgiveness, hatred and denial. Also available on website as several, smaller HTML files.

Return to Top

Teaching Materials on this Topic:

Online (Web) Sources

International Listening Association (ILA).
Available at:
The International Listening Association promotes the study, development, and teaching of listening and the practice of effective listening skills and techniques. Their "resources" page lists several listening exercises.

Offline (Print) Sources

Gordon, Thomas. Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T.): The Proven People Skills for Today's Leaders Tomorrow. Perigee, October 9, 2001.
"L.E.T. has changed countless corporations and private businesses-including many Fortune 500 companies-with its down-to-earth communication and conflict resolution skills. Now, this indispensable source has been newly revised with updated research and timely case studies." -Amazon.com

Beyond Intractability Version IV
Copyright © 2003-2010 The Beyond Intractability Project
Beyond Intractability is a Registered Trademark of the University of Colorado
Project Acknowledgements

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base Project
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors and Editors
c/o Conflict Information Consortium (Formerly Conflict Research Consortium), University of Colorado
Campus Box 580, Boulder, CO 80309
Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303) 492-2154; Contact


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