Empathic Listening: The Highest Form of Listening

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen Covey

We’ve all heard of Stephen Covey’s habit #5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

But how do we actually do it?

What’s the best way to really seek to understand, to really listen to somebody?

It’s empathic listening.

Listen Until They Feel Heard

The best way I’ve heard empathic listening defined was by Covey himself.  He said that empathic listening is not listening until you understand.  It’s listening until the other person feels understood.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes about what empathic listening is, what it is not, why it’s important, and how we can use empathic listening in our dally lives to seek to understand others, as well as make deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts.

The Essence of Empathic Listening

Empathic listening is not about agreeing with somebody.  It’s about understanding them emotionally, as well as intellectually.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.  And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”

How Do You Do Empathic Listening

Don’t just use your brain. Listen with your eyes and your heart.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.”

The 5 Levels of Listening

Empathic listening is the highest form of listening, level 5, but we usually listen at levels 1-4.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“When another person speaks, we’re usually ‘listening’ at one of four levels.  We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all.

We may practice pretending, ‘Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.’ We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain parts of the conversation. We often do this when we’re listening to the constant chatter of a preschool child. Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the word that are being said. 

But very few of us ever practice the fifth level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.”

Empathic Listening is Not “Active” Listening

Empathic listening is not about mimicking, mirroring, or reflecting the other person.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of ‘active’ listening or ‘reflective’ listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationships, and often insults those ‘listened’ to in such a way. 

It is also essentially autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical. You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate.”

Why is Empathic Listening So Powerful?

It’s so powerful because you’re actually listening to understand.  And people “need” to be understood.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand.  You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.”

Make Deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts

Withdraw less, and deposit more with empathic listening.

Via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“In addition, empathic listening is the key to making deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts, because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. You can work your fingers to the bone to make a deposit, only to have it turn into a withdrawal when a person regards your efforts as manipulative, self-serving, intimidating, or condescending because you don’t understand what really matters to him.”

Empathic listening is an easy way to level-up in life.