Empathy: Listening to Understand

A strong relationship requires more than just two people liking each other.  It needs to fed a steady diet of understanding and respect; in short, it needs empathy.  So what exactly is empathy?  It is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Personally though, I prefer a different definition: the ability to connect your experience to the experience of another.  In other words; when someone tells you something that they are going through, the empathetic response is to consider a time that you went through something similar, identify how you felt, and connect it to what you are hearing in order to understand the other person’s experience.

Let’s unpack this step by step.

Listen to Understand

The first step toward empathy is simple: Forget about responding to what the other person is saying.  When we think more about what we are going to say that what the other person is saying, we lose out on truly understanding and depend on making assumptions about what they are saying.  Stepping outside of this is what we in the business call Active Listening, which is listening with the intention of gathering information.  Active listening is an engaged process, and there is enough to be said about it to fill it’s own book, let alone a blog post.  But in a nutshell, focusing on what the other person is saying will do more to make them feel heard than any solution you can come up with halfway through their sentence.

Build Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the active listening process.  Basically, no amount of just listening will tell us everything about what is going on.  It’s important to ask questions, but not just any question.  Open-ended questions tell our conversation partners that we are interested in their thoughts and feelings.  For the uninitiated, an open-ended question is a question that does not have a simple answer.  “What do you think about the color of the sky?” has a more complex answer than “What color is the sky?”

Asking open-ended questions also tells our partner that we are paying enough attention to know what questions to ask.  If you ask “What color is the sky?” when they are talking about how their boss really hurt them, then it is obvious that you aren’t listening.  So ask questions, and build your understanding.

Connect Your Understanding

After you have listened and asked some questions, you may find yourself being reminded of a time in your life when something similar happened to you.  It doesn’t have to be on the same scale, but similar events cause similar feelings.  For example, if your beloved pet was killed by a car, and you are talking to someone whose brother was killed in a car accident than you can relate those two experiences; even though they are very different.  You might avoid mentioning that the reason you can relate to unexpected and traumatic loss is because your dog ran into traffic, but you can still sit in the pain together.

Express Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the connection.  Once you have made a connection inside of yourself, share that understanding.  Being able to both identify and express our understanding is what makes empathy happen.  Hearing someone else say that they know how you feel (with the evidence to back it up) is a powerful thing.  The evidence is important though; if you just say that you understand without really connecting with something, it could come across as un-genuine.

Correct Your Understanding

Lastly, sometimes your understanding doesn’t connect.  Maybe the emotion you felt when your dog died was the loss of a companion, while your conversation partner is facing a mortality crisis.  This is okay, just try again!  So long as you continue to listen with the intent to understand, you can rebuild, reconnect, and re-express your understanding until they know that you get it!

Empathy is a skill that requires practice. Being able to understand where someone else is coming from is the best way to build trust in a relationship!

So this is empathy in a nutshell.  Bear in mind that being empathetic requires vulnerability; it is impossible to truly connect to a feeling if you are trying to hide them.

Let me know what you think!  Also, what are your experiences with empathy?  Has there been a time when someone was able to really connect with you by listening and understanding?  How about you connecting with someone else by listening?  Let’s talk about it!

And as always, like and share this if you enjoyed the read!

This post was originally published 10/4/2016 on my old blog.

Photo by Jon Asato on Unsplash


Joey Mowery

I am a blogger, artist, hipster, and wannabe renaissance man. I use video games and pop culture as a means to educate others on mental health and relationship topics.


  1. Empathy is so important yet so rare! It’s so true that most people listen to reply.
    Self awareness is the key here, because we see things as we are, not as they are. It’s a special skill to be able to step away from our own feelings to attempt to see things from another’s perspective.
    When we are able to, relationships flow better, we become better at forgiving and we actually grow our own perspectives too. Great topic to discuss and article 🙂

    • Cristy, you are absolutely right! One thing I like to say is that we tend to respond to what we hear, not what was said. That’s why connecting and correcting is so important! Taking someone else’s feelings personally is such an easy trap to fall into, and it can rob us of the opportunity to really understand the other person; and without understanding, a relationship will wither fairly quickly. Thanks for the comment!

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