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Functional Empathy




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Why listening matters and how to be a great listener

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and not felt like you have been listened to at all? For most of us, when we express ourselves emotionally there is a deep desire inside that the person we are speaking to will ‘give us’ their 100% attention. They will stop talking over us, acknowledge what you have said, and just really listen, perhaps for once not giving us their advice or opinion back.

I can recall one personal experience where I had something very important that I wanted to share with someone very close to me; for this blog (and not wanting to upset her) I will call her Angela.

In this instance, there was that moment during our conversation that I began opening up to Angela. I needed her to hear me, to take what I was saying seriously, I did not need her advice or an example or her opinion. I just wanted Angela to hear me and acknowledge how I was feeling.

As Angela began giving me an example of how my story related to her, my heart sank; she was not hearing me at all and, worse still, she was not even aware that this was the case.

In this moment Angela switched the conversation to be about her, what I really needed right as that moment was to actively listen with empathy. Sound familiar?

So what is it about being listened to that makes such a difference to us?

I believe that to truly listen to someone, when it really matters to the person speaking, we must do so from the heart and not from the ego. When we listen from the heart, we listen as an act of curiosity and empathy, rather than as an opportunity to give clever responses, quote similar stories or provide solutions to the person speaking.

Most of us are hard wired to transactional conversations where we exchange stories and relate our connections through our similar experiences, challenges, and examples. This is particularly common in a professional scenario where we perform transactional tasks by exchanging of information, or perhaps personally when having a rant about a person or situation in common.


In coaching, we refer to empathetic listening as active listening

In active listening, we create an empathetic non-judgemental connection with the speaker by adding the simple act of providing the space to speak, acknowledging what’s been said and validating what the person’s feelings are without trying to solve the person’s problems, or butting in. This creates a deeper connection with the person speaking, who can feel like his or her heart is being listened to.

For the most part, human beings have an innate desire to be heard, listened to and ultimately be seen and respected. If we all took the time to slow down and learn how to listen to each other, I believe the world and the people in it would become less frustrated and much less angry.

Looking back at my experience with Angela, and the many conversations I have had with my friends, family and my clients, it is clear that we are not taught how to listen with empathy. Most of us listen to others in a way that we have been taught to listen from the ego, by our parents and educators (who in turn were similarly taught by theirs).

On reflection of my earlier story, it was not Angela’s fault that she did not listen to me properly, she had just never been taught how to listen from the heart and she did have the awareness or skills to do otherwise.

In a world where therapy and coaching are becoming much more accepted, our culture is slowly changing, and we are learning to listen with intention and heart.

Slowly and surely, we are also beginning to learn that it is OK to talk about our emotions openly (yes, even us men). This then highlights how vital it is to be able to listen, acknowledge and validate how the speaker is feeling and not disregard those emotions.

The key to both coaching and Functional Empathy is listening, is it truly is the heart and foundation of both, everything hinges on it.

During my coach training programme, my peers and I spent many hours of our training focused on how to listen actively and with intention, and these styles of listening can be broken down into three levels.

The Levels

Level 1 – Internal Listening: Where the listener’s awareness is on themselves. This is where we listen to the words being spoken, but where our attention is on what it means to us personally.

Level 2 – Focused Listening: Where there is a sharp focus on the other person, what they are saying, how they say it. There is a great deal of attention on the other person and not much attention on the outside world. This is very similar to active (or heart) listening.

Level 3 – Global Listening: Where you listen as if the speaker and listener are at the centre of the universe, receiving information from everywhere at once. Level 3 listening includes everything you can observe with your senses; what you see, hear, smell and feel. Intuition and empathy play a significant role in this type of listening.

During a typical conversation, most people will communicate naturally using internal listening (level 1), where typically each person will respond to each other concerning how the question related to them personally. Some people however may listen naturally with Focused Listening (Level 2) whereby they consciously allow the other person to speak without interruption. For those of you who have experienced this before, you will now how different that feels.

I’m not going to lie, learning to listen actively takes practice, but it can be learnt just like any other skill, even for the most empathetic of us out there it can prove to be challenging not to interrupt with help or advice. An Empaths natural response to listen to a problem is to try to help or fix a person or problem, (sound familiar) and helping or fixing might well be appropriate in some circumstance, but sometimes it is not what the person speaking wants from you.

Learning to listen actively can have a profound impact on the way you communicate and connect with other fellow human beings, and guess what, active listening can be applied anywhere you like, with friends, family, work colleagues and with partners.

What does it take to be a good listener? 

People who become coaches are often gifted listeners, to begin with, but that is not always the case. The good news is that listening can be developed through training and practice, and you do not have to train as a coach to improve your listening skills.

Here are some of my personal tips on how to become a better listener:

  • Be interested and curious: Many people think listening means keeping quiet until it is their turn to talk. But true listening is a selfless act. Listening means giving your thoughtful wholehearted attention to another person. This attention is non-judgmental, open-minded, respectful, and demonstrates a curiosity to learn more.
  • Hold space for the speaker: When you truly listen to someone, particularly when the subject may be sensitive, creating the right space for the speaker will make them feel safe and secure. Holding space means being physically, mentally and emotionally present for someone, and placing your focus 100% on someone to support them in the way they think and feel without judgement.
  • Listen from your heart and not your ego: Try to listen from your heart and not your head. Learning to listen from your heart space creates an empathetic connection between the listener and speaker. It also creates a much more open and objective conversation as the listener is not constantly trying to come up with a clever response.
  • Wait for organic pauses: Try not to interrupt. It is an amazing gift to provide space for someone to just let it all out. We have a natural tendency to speak as someone has finished speaking. If you are unsure if the person has finished, perhaps take a few more breaths before you begin to speak. Some people internalise and process before they speak, so learning to feel for ‘natural’ cue’s is a skill that you can develop over time. 
  • Acknowledge and Validate: Good listening is not complete silence, although, remember, you are not there to give your own story or to provide a solution or solve a problem unless specifically asked to (for example, if your colleague tells you in a loud and upset voice, “I am feeling really stressed with the amount of work I have right now, I’m not sure how I’m going to cope”).

As a good listener, you should let your colleague vent, don’t tell them to calm down and not be stressed. That will only escalate those feelings of being stressed and they will not feel heard. Instead, it would be better to empathise with your colleague and acknowledge what they have said and validate how they are feeling. Perhaps you might respond with some of their own words, and say “Okay, you sound really upset. I’m really glad you have told me; I can only imagine what you must be feeling like right now.”

By reflecting back to the person what they said in their own words, you are acknowledging you heard them accurately. And by saying you might feel the same way, you are putting yourself in their position and empathising with them.

  • Use subtle clues to indicate listening: Just because you are not speaking when you are listening does not mean you cannot show you are listening (particularly when you are on the phone. Let the person know that you’re interested in nodding your head, murmuring “mmm hmmm,” and softly echoing a word or short phrase here and there.
  • Don’t give unasked-for advice: When someone asks you to sit down and have a conversation with them don’t be tempted to start giving advice. What most of us don’t realise is that whilst you might think you are being helpful with your great ideas and solutions, offering them before a person has expressed their feelings does not work. Think about it. Would you want to be told what to do while you’re venting?
  • Ask for what is needed: A common mistake that most listeners make is that they assume that the person speaking is looking for advice or mentoring. When the person has finished speaking, ask them what they need. You may be surprised to hear that they did not need your advice at all, and just needed to get something off their chest.
  • Switch off your mobile phone: How many times have we sat down with someone to have a conversation only to be interrupted by the constant pinging of our mobile phone? If you are planning to either speak to someone or listen intently, be respectful of each other and switch off your phones!

Just to be clear, it is not always appropriate to listen in one particular way. The beauty of learning to listen in different ways means that you are much more self-aware of how you listen, and therefore more adaptable in the way that you listen to people.

From a personal perspective, learning to listen actively from the heart gave me so many choices: As a professional coach I learnt how listening with empathy creates a space for my clients to foster trust, confidentiality, and transformation; As an empath I learnt to listen without feeling like I needed to fix a problem, creating healthy boundaries for myself; I also learnt that I had a choice as to when I had to listen (that was a big one for me).

Most importantly I learnt the secret of leading with empathy whereby I make the choices of where I put my own energy and intention, and no longer have it sucked out of me.

I hope the above has provided you with some insight into the different types of listening and some of the benefits of becoming an active listener.