Mental Health Matters: Empathic Listening

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Mental Health Matters

Empathic Listening

Samantha Tyler, NCC, M.S./Ed.S., Director of Residential Services


As a CPI instructor, I always stress to my students that although we may spend a great deal of time practicing physical techniques, verbal skills can and should be utilized first when faced with a crisis situation. As long as the person is not an immediate danger to themselves or others, there is time to evaluate the individual’s behavior. One can simultaneously assess a situation by gathering information and verbally de-escalate by showing the individual care and respect. One way that this is accomplished is through the active process of empathic listening. Empathic listening allows us to recognize another person’s emotions and to see things from their perspective.

Below are five key points to take your listening skills from passive to an active, empathic process.

Be nonjudgmental. Resist the urge to insert your opinion when communicating with others, and instead focus on listening. In lieu of your opinion, advice, or criticism, simply validate what the individual is saying. Recognize that their emotions are real and perhaps the most important thing in their life at that moment. As a listener, remember your role is to attend, not judge.

Give undivided attention. Did you know that we listen with more than just our ears? Eye contact communicates attention. Stillness in the body (in other words, put down the notebook, keyboard, etc.) shows that we are not distracted. A simple smile, nod of the head, or hand gesture encourages the speaker to continue. This simple skill will help you get the information needed to assess a situation, but the individual being served will feel validated and important.

Listen carefully to what the person is really saying. At times our communication style can be self-serving. Sometimes curiosity gets the best of us. But do we really need the “dirt” or “juicy details” to validate feelings? Check in with yourself before you ask a question to determine if you really need the answer in order to help the individual. By focusing on feelings, not just facts, we can communicate a true understanding of what the individual is trying to say.

Allow silence for reflection. There are many reasons why an individual may need silence before responding- they may need to sort out reality from internal stimuli, they may require extra time for cognitive processing, or they may simply need to reflect for a moment. Our own discomfort with silence can thwart the growth in people we serve. Resist the urge to answer the question for them or to give response options. When this happens, we run the risk of leading them to the answer we want to hear. Instead, watch for body language—that will likely tell you if they need help understanding a question.

Use restatement to clarify messages. Cultural differences, individual interpretation, and education level are just a few things that can be a barrier to effective communication. Before assuming that you know what an individual is saying, restate it in your own words and ask them if you are on target. There is no shame if you got it wrong the first time. Clarifying what you heard also reassures the speaker that you are interested in what they are saying. Restatements are a powerful tool to keep the individual engaged and the communication going by keeping both parties on the same page.

These five steps may seem simple enough but it is easier than you think to fall into a pattern of jumping to conclusions, conversing while being involved in another task, or speaking when we really should be listening. It may take a conscious effort at first, but do not give up! Thoughtful practice of these steps will soon lead to a natural ability to listen empathically with not only the people you serve, but everyone that you communicate with.

For more information visit: Crisis Prevention Institute –

Crisis Resources

Apalachee Center:
Evaluations & Admissions

850-523-3483 / 1-800-342-0774

Big Bend 211:
850-617-6333 / 850-921-4020 TTY (Hearing/Speech Impaired)

Suicide Prevention Hotline:
1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Dial 911

Contact Information

Eastside Psychiatric Hospital is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Phone: 850-523-3300 Ext. 4340
Fax: 850-523-3425
2634 Capital Circle NE, Bldg. B
Tallahassee, Florida 32308

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