First Step Towards Empathy: How To Improve Your Listening Skills

Sándor Sipos
Leadership Trainer | Life & Business Coach | OD & HR Developer | Creative Thinker
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If you want to excel in social skills, you definitely have to start with listening. Listening skills are the entrance to empathy, which is the key to any successful conversation. Good news are that there are no special tricks to improve your listening skills. There’s only one very simple thing you need to consider:


It’s as simple as that: if you are not interested to what the other person is talking about, you won’t listen to it. You can pretend to listen, but it won’t work. So when you catch yourself not listening, the question is why aren’t you interested? There are usually three main reasons for that:

Reason 1:

What the other person is talking about is simply BORING to you.

It’s ok. You can’t be interested in everybody’s chatter every time. Now you have two options: either you try to find something interesting in that conversation or let it go. The latter is totally ok. 

Don’t talk too long with people who are boring to you.

You don’t need to listen long and carefully to EVERY person in the world. Life is too short. Look for people who you can connect to.

But before you walk away from every conversation that didn’t grab your attention in the first 10 seconds, you have another option. Ask yourself this simple question: “What is in this conversation or in this person that I DO care about?”

If you find something, then ask the other person about that.

Your question about the topic you are at least a bit interested in will not only change the course of the communication towards a more interesting direction, but your curiosity will also feel good to him/her.

Reason 2:

You are interested in other things more right now than what’s the other person is talking about.

S/he is not boring, but right now, you have something more important in your mind. Then you should make yourself aware about this, and choose: “Do I want to listen to that person right now and focus on that other thing later, or apologize him/her, and start dealing with this other thing.”

It is much better to decide and to choose to do something else than to pretend (again) to focus on somebody when your brain is focusing on something else.

You can decide like this, for example: “I will think about how to get to work tomorrow without a car AFTER I listened Jenny talking about her problem with her boss.” Right after you made your decision, focusing on the other person will be much easier.

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Reason 3:

You are interested much more about what YOU would like to answer to the other than about what s/he is talking about.

This is the most common scenario. We cannot focus on the other person’s speech because we are thinking about what we want to answer when it’s our turn. The solution is to be aware of the fact that

if you do not listen to the other, no matter how “perfect” answer you made up in the meantime, it won’t work.

That won’t be a conversation. It will be two monologues, and that’s never the goal of any communication. The problem with monologues is that you cannot give a proper answer if you don’t really know what the other person is talking about. If you don’t hear what are his/her problems, opinion, feelings, attitudes, intentions or wishes, how would you want to give an answer that will move the conversation towards a preferable end.

So, what’s the solution? When the other person is talking, listen to him/her. THEN, when s/he made his/her point, you are free to THINK about what to answer.

Feel free to think as long as you want.

You don’t need to react to the other person as soon as s/he has finished talking. This is a very important lesson. You don’t have to answer immediately. This is something that comes from school when we had to give the correct answer immediately, because if not, we got a bad feedback and bad grades. But life is not like school back then. You have the right to answer a bit later. You have the right to think about your answer. Take 1 second, 5 seconds, 10 seconds or a minute. If it takes a bit longer, tell the other person that you need time. “Ok, that’s interesting. Let me think about that for a minute.”Aham. [3 sec pause used for thinking] …then I think…” – and you give the answer after you thought about it.

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So the point is, if you are interested in the other person, you should listen to him/her before articulating your opinion. And then… …then it’s still not about your opinion, I’m sorry. Before talking about what you think, want, feel etc., you should EXPRESS him/her that you were listening. That is called active listening.

It’s as simple as listening. You just tell the other person what you understood about what s/he said recently.

Sometimes you tell it word-by-word, other times you only use the keywords of what s/he said and often you just summarize the point.

Example 1

Other: “I’m really upset about what’s been happening on our department in the last few weeks. I didn’t join this company for this mess.” Bad answer: [you weren’t listening] “You’re overreacting. I think this is only temporary, so we just need to adapt.” Better answer: [you were listening and you express it] “So you’re upset about all these things. What exactly bothers you?”

Example 2

Other: [talking long about her struggles with her teenage son] Bad answer: [you weren’t listening] “My sister and her husband have no problems at all with her three teenagers. They are like a rock band together. I hope I will have a family like them!” Better answer: [you were listening and you express it] “You seem to have a lot of trouble with your son. Thank you for being so honest and open with me about that.  I understand what you’re going through with your son is very difficult and that you want to be the best mom you can be for him.”

Believe me, it’s not rocket science. You just need to:

CARE about the other and BE INTERESTED in what s/he is talking about.

LISTEN to him/her and pay atttention to not just what s/he is saying but also to how s/he is saying it.

Then before telling your opinion, EXPRESS shortly what you understood.

Want to read more on listening skills and empathy? Try this post about why empathy is important and hard at the same time. Or read this for more details about how to practice active listening in conversations.
why is empathy important


Empathy has a good reputation in society. We all know that it’s good to be empathetic. But in real-life situations we often act in a way that is far from being empathetic. Why is it so hard and what can we do about it? A mind-changing article about the typical misunderstandings and the surprising benefits of empathy.

View Full Post

how to be empathetic


Empathy has a good reputation in society. We all know that it’s good to be empathetic. But in real-life situations we often act in a way that is far from being empathetic. Why is it so hard and what can we do about it? A mind-changing article about the typical misunderstandings and the surprising benefits of empathy.

View Full Post

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