How to Listen With Empathy (+ Why You Should)

May 25, 2023

13 min read

How to Listen With Empathy—and Why You Should

Often, people just want to be heard and understood. Empathetic listening is a powerful communication tool that you can use to build trust, foster understanding, and create meaningful relationships. You can learn how to listen with empathy and reap the benefits in your personal and professional relationships.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What it means to listen with empathy
  • Examples of what empathetic listeners say
  • The importance of empathetic listening
  • The framework of empathetic listening
  • How to listen with empathy

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and identify the emotions of others. If you can notice how someone is feeling right off the bat, you’re most likely a very empathetic person. Empathetic people can also often tell what someone is thinking, just by looking at them.

Not everyone has the ability to empathize and that’s OK. However, empathy is a skill that you can work on if that’s a goal of yours. 

What are empaths?

Empaths are people who are very tuned in to the emotions of those around them. They feel what others feel in a deeper way than the average person.

Although people can be born empaths, empathy is still a skill that can be learned. Not everyone is a natural empath.

What Are the Types of Empathy?

There are a couple of types of empathy, pinpointed by researchers. The two main types are affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

What is affective empathy?

Affective empathy is the emotions and sensations a person feels as a result of someone else’s emotions

For example, when you see someone who’s very anxious or stressed, you might in turn start to feel some anxiety or stress. In a similar fashion, if you’re on a rollercoaster that’s just starting to creep forward and your seatmate is terrified, you could start to feel afraid just because they are. 

Essentially, affective empathy involves mirroring another person’s emotions. 

What is cognitive empathy?

On the other hand, there’s cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to not only recognize someone else’s feelings, but also to understand them. This type of empathy is also called “perspective taking.” For some people, this kind of empathy can be especially difficult. 

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are two terms that are often treated synonymously, or confused for each other. Still, they’re two very different concepts.

Where empathy is the understanding and compassion we can show toward others, sympathy refers to the pity we feel or show for someone.

In other words, sympathy can manifest as the comfort we feel in not having to face the same situation as another person. The expression of empathy stems from our understanding of how someone feels in that situation.

Empathy Examples

Empathy can take lots of forms and because of that, it can be hard to recognize sometimes. To get a better understanding, here are a few empathy examples.

Expressing your own emotions

This won’t always be the case, but sometimes it helps to share your own feelings. For example, if a friend’s parent dies, saying something like, “Oh, I know how you feel” isn’t very helpful. It might be more helpful to honestly express your own emotions by saying something like, “Wow, I can’t imagine what you must be going through.” Even responding by saying, “I don’t know what to say” is OK sometimes. 

Being engaging

Although it can be tricky and nuanced, being engaging and showing interest in something that someone’s saying or doing is a great way to be empathetic. Body language like smiling, soft eye contact, nodding, and even raising your eyebrows can help. Asking relevant questions is a good way, too. 

Recognizing someone’s pain

When someone’s in pain, it can be hard to know what to do. Acknowledging it is a safe first step. It helps you connect to the person in a genuine way and can even provide them comfort. One of the most common ways to do this is by saying something like, “I hate that you’re going through this” or “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

Supporting someone

Support can take lots of forms, too. But verbal support is a great way to show empathy. For example, if someone you love is having a hard time with a difficult coworker at work, avoid saying, “Oh, me too” and starting your own story. Instead, offer some verbal support, like “I’m in your corner” or “Would you like to talk about it?”

Now, let’s get into some tips for how to practice empathy on your own. 

Tips for How to Practice Empathy

Practicing empathy can be difficult at first if you’re not a naturally empathetic person (and there’s nothing wrong with that!).

However, if you’re interested in learning and building up your own empathy, it’s totally doable. Here are some tips for how to practice empathy. 

  1. Don’t ignore facial expressions. You can tell a lot from someone’s face and facial expressions. Although it might seem tricky at first, taking the time to study facial expressions will pay off, according to research. You can even do this while you watch TV. Turn on your favorite show (even if it’s a cartoon) and pay special attention to the characters’ expressions. In this case, the character’s dialogue can help, too. If you’re interested, Berkeley has an emotional intelligence quiz that can give you some insight.
  2. Stand up to discrimination and inequality. Even though this might seem overwhelming — and it definitely can be — getting involved in advocacy work and actively working to combat discrimination can help you improve your empathy. For example, you could explore local advocacy groups in your community. Even something as simple as using inclusive language is a great way to practice empathy.
  3. Work on your body language. Empathetic body language is essential to expressing empathy. Some mannerisms you could start using include raising your eyebrows to show interest, smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and relaxing your face. When in doubt, try to mirror the other person’s body language. This can be very helpful if you’re stuck and not sure how to move your body. 
  4. Avoid judging and jumping to conclusions. Although it’s tempting, try not to jump to conclusions. You’re less likely to empathize if you’re always assuming things about others. Assuming things and jumping to conclusions are different from “walking in someone’s shoes” — the latter refers to trying to imagine what someone else is experiencing. 
  5. Improve your overall awareness. Though you might not think about it, extending your awareness to take note of your surroundings is helpful for empathy, too. You may have heard the term “people watching” before — the concept of literally watching people go about their lives. This is similar. Being aware of how others around you are acting can improve your empathy by exposing you to different expressions and behaviors. 

There are also specific exercises and activities geared toward helping people learn empathy.

Empathy Exercises

Empathy exercises are a great way to practice being empathetic. Here are a few empathy exercises to keep in mind to get you going.

Explore altruism. Altruism is generally defined as “unselfish concern.” For this exercise, the goal is to connect to someone. Try doing a good deed for someone. It doesn’t have to be huge — even holding the door open for someone at the DMV can count. This tiny action can be a live reminder of empathy and empathetic acts.

Try active listening. You’re probably familiar with passive listening — listening to someone in silence without reacting. Active listening is a great empathy exercise. Next time you’re talking to someone, instead of listening in silence, try to ask some relevant questions, even if you think the subject is boring. For example, if someone seems to be droning on and on about how their child is an honors student, you might ask what the child’s favorite subject is. A simple question like that shows the other person you’re engaged and interested (even if you couldn’t care less).

Getting to know you. This exercise doesn’t have to be an in-person activity. Start by thinking of someone you dislike or who seems very opposite of you. Next, get out a sheet of paper and a pen and make a list of similar traits the two of you share. No matter how different the person is, there will definitely be traits you have in common, even if it’s something as simple as, “We both like Manchester United.” 

Empathy in practice. This one also doesn’t need to be in person. For this exercise, turn on your local news channel or take a look in the paper. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So, for example, if you’re reading about a business owner who just opened a new cupcake store, imagine what they’re like as a person and what it must’ve took to open a business. 

What Is Empathetic Listening?

Empathetic listening is a type of listening that goes beyond simply hearing what the other person is saying. It entails trying to understand their thoughts, feelings, and perspective. Empathetic listeners put themselves in the other person’s shoes and see the world from their point of view.

It helps to have a firm grasp on what empathy is in general. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s a key component of emotional intelligence and is essential for building strong relationships.

Examples of Empathetic Listening

Here are some examples of what an empathetic listener says:

  • “It sounds like you’re feeling really frustrated.”
  • “I think I can understand why you’re upset.”
  • “It must have been really difficult for you.”
  • “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
  • “Can you tell me more about what happened?”
  • “How can I help?”

The Importance of Empathetic Listening

Empathetic listening is a valuable skill in both personal and professional relationships. Here are some benefits that illustrate the importance of empathetic listening:

  • Builds relationships: When you listen with empathy, you show the other person that you care about them, you understand where they’re coming from, and you’re interested in what they have to say. Empathetic listening allows the listener to gain insight into how the other person feels and think about their experiences, which can help them better understand each other’s perspectives. This builds trust and rapport, which are essential for strong relationships.
  • Provides support: Often, when someone is going through a difficult time, they don’t want advice; they just want someone to listen. Empathetic listening, in particular, can provide them with the support they need. By listening to their thoughts and feelings, you can help them to feel less alone and more supported.
  • Resolves conflict: When you listen with empathy, you can help the other person to feel heard and understood. This can make it easier to resolve conflict, as both parties are more likely to see each other’s perspectives and be willing to compromise.
  • Finds solutions: Empathetic listening requires open minds and allows open communication. This can lead to breakthroughs in understanding and insights to help everyone move forward together.

Overall, empathetic listening is an important communication tool that can be used in any relationship or group setting. By engaging in active dialogue and actively listening without judgment or criticism, both parties can foster understanding and build more meaningful relationships.

The Framework of Empathetic Listening

Empathetic listening is a conversation that goes beyond a casual chat. It works best when it’s within a framework. That way, you make sure you cover all the bases. Here are the four parts of a conversation that entails empathetic listening:

  1. Preparation: If you anticipate such a conversation, you can take just a moment to prepare.
  2. Attentive listening: Pay attention to their words, tone of voice, and body language.
  3. Reflection: Reflect back what they’ve communicated through words, tone, and body language.
  4. Response: Respond to the speaker’s needs.

How to Listen With Empathy

Empathetic listening isn’t always easy. But, it’s a skill that you can develop. The more you do it, the better you’ll become at it. Here’s some advice on how to listen with empathy, organized within the four-part framework of the conversation listed above.


  • Prepare the environment. If you have a chance, find a quiet place to talk and minimize distractions and interruptions. Put your phone on silent and out of sight.
  • Prepare your mind: Take a few deep breaths, and let go of any distracting thoughts. Keep in mind that you want to be fully present and attentive and that your primary purpose is to listen and understand.

Attentive listening

  • Be present. Give them your full attention.
  • Focus on them: Make eye contact, and let them know that you’re interested in what they have to say and that you care about them and what’s going on.
  • Be patient: It could take time for the speaker to open up and share their thoughts and feelings. Be patient, and let them know that you’re there for them.
  • Pay attention to their words: Listen for their main points and the emotions behind their words.
  • Pay attention to their tone of voice: Their tone of voice can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling.
  • Pay attention to their body language: Their body language also can give you clues about what’s going on. (Learn how to read body language and facial expressions.)
  • Be open-minded. Try to see things from their perspective. Don’t try to fix their problems. Avoid making snap judgments or assumptions about what they’re feeling or thinking.


  • Reflect back what you’ve heard: This is active listening, which helps ensure that they feel heard and that you’ve understood them correctly.
  • Reflect back the speaker’s emotions: This shows them that you understand how they’re feeling.
  • Avoid judgment and criticism. This means not interrupting or offering advice unless they ask you for it. This will help them feel safe and supported.
  • Ask questions. Asking questions, especially clarifying ones, shows that you’re interested in what they have to say and that you’re trying to understand their perspective.


  • Respond to their needs: This might entail offering support, advice, or simply being a sounding board.

Learn how to improve your listening skills in general.

How to Improve Empathy

If you’d like to learn how to improve your empathy skills, you’re in the right place. To work on your empathy, you can try taking advantage of a communication coach like Yoodli to practice. 

Through artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Yoodli is able to completely analyze a user’s speech and speaking patterns from start to finish. To practice your empathy, simply upload or record a video of yourself responding to everyday conversation prompts (such as, “How was your weekend?”). 

Focus on your empathetic body language and tone. Yoodli will give you analytics on not only things like your pacing and word choice, but also your body language. 

While you’re working on your empathetic body language, you can see if your practice is paying off. Yoodli can evaluate your expressions and let you know if you should try to smile more or if you need to be making more eye contact.

You can also involve a friend or two to practice empathy. Join a Zoom or Google Meet call with your friends and have a chat. All the while, remember those tips to work on your empathy and try to employ them as often as possible. 

Next, save and upload your recording to Yoodli. Learn how to record Google Meet if you’re unsure. 

When you analyze a group recording, Yoodli can let you know information related to empathy, including your talk time (AKA did you give other people enough time to talk or did you start to monologue?) and whether or not you asked enough questions. The latter is especially important, since asking others relevant questions shows that you’re engaged and capable of empathy. 

You can learn more about talk time below: 

Looking at your talk time statistics can help you build more empathy.

Why Is Empathy Important?

Empathy is important because it allows us to step into someone else’s shoes and get an understanding of what emotions they’re feeling. This is helpful because being empathetic can help you know how to respond to the situation at hand. 

The more empathy a person has, the more likely they’re able to step up to the plate and help someone. 

Wrapping Up

Listening with empathy is a gift you can give to others, and you’ll find that everyone comes out ahead. It’s an example of constructive communication that leads to positive results.

Empathy can be a powerful tool, both in your professional and personal lives. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with having trouble showing empathy. Some aren’t empathetic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if it’s a goal of yours to learn how to be empathetic or to improve your empathy skills, that’s OK too (and it’s totally doable!). 

To improve your empathy, try implementing the tips you’ve learned via Yoodli to gain valuable insights. You’ll be able to elevate your speech while achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself. 


Start practicing with Yoodli.

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