Can You Learn Empathy? Listening Skills Hold the Key

I used to be pretty judgmental of moms whose kids acted atrociously. When I had a child with a mood disorder, however, I learned there are some behavioral problems that no amount of discipline can correct. Some require medication, some require therapy, and some just are.

I learned empathy the hard way — not by walking a mere mile in those other moms’ shoes, but by living their lives day in and day out. Fortunately, everybody can learn how to be more empathic, and it starts with improving your listening skills.

Becoming a More Receptive Conversationalist

Active listening focuses not only on what the other person is saying, but on the feelings behind their words. Try these three tactics to get better in this area:

  1. Focus. This isn’t the kind of half-hearted listening you do while you think about what you’re going to say next or play a game on your phone. It’s not about listening for the weak point in another person’s argument or coming up with a rebuttal, either. Active listening requires intense focus with the goal of understanding exactly and completely what the other person is saying.
  2. Reflect. Repeat what the other person said from your own viewpoint to make sure there’s a connection. This both gives the speaker the opportunity to expand on their thoughts and shows you’re making an effort to give a deeper response.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. Draw the speaker out by asking questions that require more than a yes-no answer: Why? Why not? How? The more questions you ask, the more insight you’ll have to the other person’s thoughts and feelings.


Forming an Empathic Connection With Strangers

It’s important to use active listening skills with friends and family, but what about with people outside your immediate circle? Empathy also means seeking to understand the lives of those we would never meet otherwise, and it starts with curiosity. Without curiosity, the barista at your favorite coffee shop is only the person who hands you your latte every morning.

Sure, you may make small talk, but do you ever think of her as a person who has a life completely separate from making coffee? Because she does, you know: She may have a family, or have to juggle school and work, or be a semi-pro soccer player. That’s not to say you should grill her for all the intimate details of her life, but you should acknowledge that she’s a person outside the limited context of your initial relationship.

Developing more empathy isn’t difficult. For most people, the challenging part is slowing down long enough to be mindful of the humanity of those around us. Every person we encounter — however peripherally — has a story. They’re not just bit actors in our lives; they have a starring role in their own lives and in those of the people who love them. That awareness fosters empathy, and empathy leads to understanding, kindness, and peace.

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