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The art of listening with empathy

Written by: CABA
Published on: 4 Mar 2019

Listening is one of the most important skills we can attempt to master in the modern workplace, especially with so many distractions competing for our attention. It forms the basis of so many other skills and traits that enable effective communication. However, it can be a difficult skill to learn, as it requires us to be more present, attentive, engaged, open and flexible. The ability to listen is fast becoming an endangered skill in this digital era, due to information overload and shortened attention spans. 

Listening involves paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues and responding appropriately to what’s being said and, importantly, to what’s not being said. We spend many years being taught how to speak, read and write but we’re never formally taught how to listen, which is the skill we use the most. It’s not surprising then, that we tend to find listening quite difficult and one person’s listening skills will differ so greatly from the next. 

What prevents us from listening effectively?

  • Our frame of reference, which affects how we perceive others and causes us to make judgements rather than listening actively 
  • Having other things on our mind, causing us to zone in and out 
  • Assuming we know what the person is going to say so not giving our full attention 
  • Trying to think ahead to what we will say next, possibly missing much of what the other person is saying
  • Feeling the desire to fix problems and come up with solutions 
  • Feeling as though we don’t have enough time, causing impatience
  • Having our own agenda, so leading the conversation to meet our needs

Why is this important in the workplace? 

  • One of the key factors that determines whether employees feel supported in a workplace is the ability of their manager and colleagues to listen actively and non-judgementally
  • It isn’t possible to be completely non-judgemental, but we need to be aware of our biases and when they may show themselves. That way we can put them aside and give people the space to talk openly to us without feeling judged  
  • When supporting employees with their mental wellbeing it’s important to create a safe space for effective discussions to take place, in which a person feels they have an opportunity to speak and be listened to, so they can help craft an effective support plan 

Whilst mediating at a return to work meeting last week, with a client who has been off for six months due to work related anxiety, I noticed that although her manager was keen to support her, the question of how she was had not been asked. The manager and HR representative had spent 20 minutes talking at her, reassuringly, about all the support and adjustments they could offer. It was overwhelming for the client, so I slowed down the pace and brought the meeting back to what she was feeling and what would help her. It is important that people feel included and valued when creating a successful return to work plan. 

Several clients report feeling anxious when meeting with their line managers to discuss support plans, as they feel the conversations are led based on other peoples’ agendas without providing space to be inclusive. I have listened in on many meetings, and often it seems people are quick to provide fixes and answers for other people instead of allowing space for collaborative discussion as a way of moving things forward. Only when people feel valued and listened to will they really engage in any plans to support them. 

What makes a good listener?

  • Giving positive attention and encouragement e.g. eye contact, non-verbal nods, open body language
  • Allowing silences - remember the words silent and listen have the same letters! 
  • Giving your time freely without making the person feel they are intruding
  • Not interrupting or talking over the other person
  • Responding naturally and showing warmth
  • Listening to understand, not to respond 
  • Sharing feelings & related experiences appropriately – enough to reassure without taking over
  • Reflecting back to the other person what they have said to show understanding
  • Avoiding giving advice

What next?

Think back to a situation where you didn’t feel listened to. Think about when you have gone to have a supportive conversation with someone but have actually ended up doing most of the talking. How did you feel? How do you think the other person felt? 

Be curious about what you learn about your communication style and ability to listen well. Don’t be afraid of silences and remember you don’t have to come up with solutions straight away. The first step is to simply listen.

So today, aim to have at least one conversation with someone, whether that’s a colleague, friend or family member, where you actively listen non-judgementally and without trying to fix the problem straight away. Giving someone space and time to share whatever’s on their mind is such a powerful way to support them, and if they can identify their own solutions as a result, they’re more likely to act on these. 


This article was written for CABA by mental wellbeing specialist, Kirsty Lilley.
For more tips, tools and resources to help you take care of your mental wellbeing and empower others to do the same, visit