How to be an Active and Empathetic Listener

| October 1, 2020
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As an official partner of the #IWillListen campaign of NAMI Baltimore, Johns Hopkins is committed to letting students know that their community is ready and willing to listen to their mental health challenges.

To make sure our community is well-prepared to do so, here are some of the best practices for active and empathetic listening that A Place to Talk (APTT) members use in our roles as peer listeners on the Homewood campus.

These skills are practical ones which can and should be practiced by everyone in our daily lives, in regular conversations with peers, professors, family, friends, and community members.

Before becoming a listener, APTT members undergo a 10-week, 50-hour training, which includes crisis intervention and Mental Health First Aid. These experiences allow us to understand and exercise different skills, and to develop our own unique and effective listening styles.

However, before diving into specific skills, it’s important to first think about how we approach conversations.

What to Avoid

When listening empathetically, we hear emotional burdens and shoulder some of that. It’s key to stay away from judgment and sympathy, both of which can give off an unapproachable aura of superiority.

Approaching conversations with empathy means avoiding language that can serve as a communication blocker—including judgment, pity, dismissiveness, and even agreement.

Identifying and understanding how we often use the following communication blockers helps us to actively avoid them. So watch out for:

  • Giving solutions (“Have you tried talking to them about it?” or “You should try…”)
  • Making assumptions (“I know that happens to people like you a lot.” or “I totally understand/get that.”)
  • Lecturing, judging, or criticizing (“You never should have been in that situation” or “I thought we decided you wouldn’t do that” or “You thought that was a good idea?”)
  • Flat-out agreeing (“You’re totally right. Their behavior was awful.”)
  • Analyzing (“I don’t think that’s really what you mean.”)
  • Deflecting and dismissing (“Come on, it’s not that big a deal. You can bounce back!”)
  • Asking probing questions (“What were you even doing there?”)

What to Do

So now that we know what not to do while listening empathetically, what are some things we should do?

We can:

  • employ non-verbal communication;
  • use open-ended questions;
  • paraphrase;
  • validate feelings;
  • and give options.

These choices ensure that the speaker knows we are listening and are engaged in the conversation. It is important when beginning to practice these skills to understand that no one listens the same way, and developing your own listening style is key to engaging in an authentic conversation.

Employ non-verbal communication. Non-verbals are unspoken actions we make during conversations like staying attentive, mirroring the person’s tone and facial expressions, nodding, making constant eye contact, maintaining open body language, and embracing silences. These allow us to engage wholly and show we are fully invested in the conversations.

On video platforms like Zoom or FaceTime, our non-verbals remain mostly the same. But on text-based ones, like Messenger or iMessage, we can take advantage of verbal affirmations (mhm, yea, ok) and text reactions to continue to show our engagement.

Use open-ended questions. APTT peer listeners use open-ended questions over closed-ended questions (i.e., questions that can be answered with a yes or a no) so that the speaker can take the conversation in the direction that they want it to go, rather than what we as listeners may prefer.

We use ‘what/how’ questions and discourage ‘why’ questions, because the word ‘why’ often comes off as condescending and accusatory. We don’t want our conversation partners to feel defensive.

If you’re checking in with someone, the following open-ended questions are great conversation starters:

  • What’s on your mind recently?
  • How have you been sleeping?
  • How is your day going?
  • What do your thoughts look like today?

If you want to keep the conversation going, here are some good open-ended questions:

  • How are you feeling about X?
  • How does Y affect your daily life?
  • Where do you think that is coming from?

Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is reflecting back to the speaker what it is you heard from them using phrases like “it seems to me…”, “it sounds like…” and “you mentioned…” We paraphrase to express genuine interest and to clarify that we are on the same page.

Two of the most important parts of paraphrasing are:

  • bookmarking phrases and feelings words, and
  • leaving yourself room for error.

We “bookmark” phrases and feelings by remembering key words and emotions mentioned in the conversation, and then use them when creating our open-ended questions.

When doing so, we leave ourselves room for error by including a phrase like “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like…” or to add “Is that correct?” after repeating a bookmarked feeling or word.

Validate feelings. By noticing and repeating feelings words, we reinforce comfort and understanding around the validity of people’s feelings. A challenge of a place like Hopkins, where so many people are so brilliant and talented, is that we often find ourselves competing rather than celebrating, one-upping rather than congratulating. These habits can foster discomfort with openness around struggles, and those feelings can prevent us from fully understanding and feeling our emotions. Practicing embracing our own feelings and those of others can help to actively destigmatize the inevitable emotions involved in everyday life.

Give options. We use options to avoid giving direct advice. Since no one knows someone better than they know themselves, the best solutions are born from the mind of the person in that situation. We guide speakers to find their own solutions by asking questions like:

  • Where could you go from here?
  • What do you think could be your next move?
  • In an ideal world…
  • How have you dealt with this, or something like this, before?
  • How would you like to X?
  • What could you do to Y/to accomplish Y?

Don’t Forget Self-Care

Now that we have gone through the things to avoid and to embrace while engaged in empathetic listening, we must acknowledge one of the most critical parts of properly supporting others: supporting yourself!

Many people who commit themselves as a beacon of support for others, whether as a peer listener, a shoulder to lean on, or a friend to turn to, find themselves feeling emotionally exhausted. In APTT, we like to say that you cannot pour from an empty cup. In other words, you cannot fully be there for others until you are practicing self-care, self-love, and actively supporting your own mental health.

This can mean seeking out support from others, engaging in de-stressing activities throughout the day, or both. These activities help you achieve your best and most successful self. They also open your heart and mind up to be more effectively and wholly supportive to your friends, peers, and others.

If you are looking for more emotional and mental health resources for Hopkins students, check out this page for a complete list that’s searchable by school.

If you’re a Homewood undergraduate and you’re interested in getting involved in and/or visiting us at A Place to Talk, check out our website and join the APTT community page on Blackboard.

As an organization, APTT encourages you to participate in NAMI Baltimore’s #IWillListen week events October 4-10 for a series of powerful events focusing on building community and eliminating misconceptions around mental health. Beyond this week itself, we encourage everyone to practice active and empathetic listening with yourself and those around you.

Through APTT and practicing empathetic listening, I’ve learned to listen and care more deeply about myself and everyone I meet. This group is the embodiment of love, care, and empathy on a campus where our collective drive for excellence can sometimes overwhelm these essential things. So I am grateful not only for the opportunity to be a part of this group but also to exist constantly in the presence of some of the kindest and most compassionate people I have ever met!