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The Relationship Building Power of Empathy: Seven Actions of Empathic Listeners, 3 of 3

images-346Empathy empowers grace and harmony in our lives and relationships.

Without empathy, we’re not connected to the otherwise amazing inner resources available to help us restore or keep our connection to built-in capacities to think and feel, and, when necessary, to shift to optimal thoughts and feelings, imagine new possibilities, transform fears, make optimal choices, and ultimately grow wiser learning from our mistakes.

It is in empathic relationships that we learn to feel safe enough to compassionately connect with what is going on inside of us — rather than run away or react aggressively — when we feel triggered or stressed.

Part 1 outlined key intentions underlying empathy, and Part 2 listed three of seven actions that naturally flow from seeking to genuinely connect with another human being at deeper levels. Here are the remaining four:

4. Seek to understand (other) before being understood. 

This allows you to focus your attention on listening to understand the other’s heart with compassion (as you’d likely wish if you were them). In this place, you are present in mind and body, and are seeking what is in the highest interest of both, ultimately, to grow your compassion for your self and the other as human beings. Wanting to understand another means you also want them to be happy, you want them to realize their yearnings and dreams — after all, you share the same core yearnings to matter and fulfill your yearnings to be happy. It helps to size up the situation, with questions such as, “What does he/she most need in the moment?” It may be assurance, affection, understanding, support, clarity or just connection and a listening presence, in which case you can follow with statements, such as,  “I’m really sorry you have to put up with that at work” accordingly. Here, you are guessing what the other may be feeling beneath their words. Your intention to understand is more important, however, than working hard to guess “right” so avoid putting this kind of pressure on yourself (it’s likely to also limit your ability to intuitively guess…)  Instead remain present, notice nonverbal expressions and body language, especially voice and breathing. When you get distracted, gently bring back your focus to consciously listen with your heart.

This seeking also serves to calm you; your bain is more likely to remain in learning mode, connected to your possibility-thinking and win-win solution options, instead of in protective mode (either-or defensiveness) competing to feel heard, “understood,” valued and so on, as if there can be only one winner. The opposite is true; in relationships, a competition over whose yearnings matter causes both to lose (because it puts up obstacles to intimacy and over time harms or destroys the relationship itself).

In practice, listening to understand means focusing on the message beneath the words. You make a conscious choice to understand where the other is coming from, as if for the first time. This is much easier to do if you’re also choosing actions (listed is Part 2) that convey you care, and body language, voice and breath that says you are present, and in command of your own state of mind and body. (It also means putting away what you were holding, etc., to avoid fidgeting or looking elsewhere, remaining aware of your own thoughts, etc., in other words, to steer clear of actions that interfere with your remaining present in mind and body.

 5. Reflect back what you heard to check your understanding.

When your partner shares a frustration, unless they ask for advice, the last thing they need is you acting in ways that say you’re attempting to advise, “fix” them (their thinking or emotional state), act as judge or jury, present your case with lengthy explanations or examples (to show how right you are, or wrong they are) and so on. Empathy is a state of mind and body that aims to stay connected enough to your own mind and body so you may retain rapport with another — and thus are “able” or in position to understand and “see” the world from another’s perspective. Even though you may completely disagree with the other’s view, this is not the time to discuss differences or make corrections. (Why? Mainly because when the other is triggered, they are not listening. their higher thinking brain is not engaged! This is why timing is of essence.)

To ensure you listen to empathically connect (and thus steer clear of judging mode), it helps to slow down and enlargen the listening processes with certain actions, such as repeating back or paraphrasing what you heard the other say to check your understanding. For example, making statements that begin with phrases such as, “Let me see if I’ve got this…” or “So what you’re saying is..” You may also with to add, “Is this correct?” If they have corrections, next check for completely by asking, “Is there more?” or “Any more thoughts on this?” Repeat the paraphrasing and clarifying process until the sender is satisfied. This may sound and feel cumbersome at first, however, in addition to helping you and your partner develop good listening skills, keeping to this structure also helps both of you together steer out of dangerous waters and into safe harbors.

6. Shift away from judgments, and instead make conscious observations.

Consciously focus off self and on understanding the other. Be conscious of your thoughts to prevent them from distracting you. Consciously let go of judgments, assumptions, jumping to conclusions, or any temptation to give advice, and so on.Set an intention to consciously focus on understanding the other. This means noticing and letting go of evaluative self-talk, assumptions, reactivity you may notice inside, so that you may place your full attention on the other’s communication. Tell yourself you desire and are really, really interested in understanding what the other person is saying and their perspective, from their experience.

It helps to adopt the following assumption or belief: Take nothing personally, it always has to do with their “stuff” such as inner wounds from childhood. If you adopt this belief, you’ll more easily give your self the empathy you need, in the moment, to stay present and listen to the voice of the other to understand how they feel, what they emotionally yearn for, and so on. As much as possible, as you listen to the emotional tone of their voice, and keep your voice relatively soft and gentle, caring and thoughtful.

7. Value the other’s uniqueness and differing perspectives, dreams, etc., as potential assets.

Remind yourself that everyone has their own perspective, and just as you want yours to be heard, understood, and validated as your own, others want and, actually are hard-wired with these emotional needs for being known, understood, recognized for who they are and their unique contributions. Developing this capacity leads to increases in happiness, personal and relational healing—a capacity to “see” the inherent connection between our own and the others’ highest good. 

When talking, avoid interruptions to allow other to finish before responding. Take turns, allowing one person to completely finish expressing their point and perspective of an event or situation first—before you express your own.  Reflect back what you heard to check you’ve understood what they want to say. Check to see if there is more by asking, “Is there more?”

Interrupt only when it may be best interest of both, for example:

  • You want to check your understanding when the speaker is stating more information than you can process at one time. In this case, before you interrupt ask the speaker “Can I stop you there?” or “Can I reflect on what I’ve understood thus far?”
  • You want to check what the speaker means by some work or phrase they used. Just ask, “Can you tell me what you mean by ‘too soon to tell’?”
  • You notice that one or both are triggered, and want to take a break to refresh the energy you bring to your conversations. In this case, mention, “What’s happening here? Do we need to take a break or just pause for a couple of breaths to renew our highest purpose to stay connected to our compassion?”

In sum …

Empathic listening is an act of love that says much more than words can ever say to express you care enough to give your heartfelt attention to meaningfully connect, and by doing so, allow the speaker to connect to their inner truth with greater clarity.

Empathy makes it easier for us to talk and express our self authentically (rather than defensively). It makes it possible for us to hear our own thoughts and feel our own feelings, especially painful ones we’d prefer to avoid, and process them without extremes of shutting down or exploding.

When we receive empathy every cell in our body knows it. The ability to connect to one another’s inner emotional strivings supports us to remain calm and centered. It may still be painful to feel upsetting emotions, however, we are in a healing place to transform pain and fear into assets. Pain and fear are assets when they propel us into taking actions that connect us us to what we most care about, yearn for and value, and thus, can move us to break out of old comfort zones toward positive directions.

Ideally we learn this in our primary relationships in childhood.

It’s fair to say, most of us do not. In a culture that conditions us to push away or dismiss painful emotions as weaknesses, defects or nuisances at best, how could our parents teach or give us something they did not know or have in their experience?

The possibility of health and happiness in our relationships may begin in infancy, however, it does not end there. If we survived childhood, our brains retain the capacity to stretch and grow the empathy and tender understanding we need to ever expand our compassion for our self and the other, the other and our self.

Love is a formula, one that powerful governs our world of relationships with precision noted noted by sages and philosophers from the beginning of time. As all algebraic formulas, if we remove the term from one side of an equation, the equation is no more. Similarly, we can only genuinely empathize, connect or love — to the extent we tend equally to both sides of the equation — self and other.Empathy is an emotional connection that takes us on a journey to deeper levels of compassion for self and other. Conceivably, compassion is a spiritual journey and empathy allows our hearts to connect in ways that stretch our ability to love as we increase our knowledge, wisdom and understanding along the way.

When we’re empathically connected, our own willingness to understand and to be open to see (without limiting judgments) opens up infinite possibilities for positive outcomes. It fosters a sense of harmony in our conversations or interactions with loved ones, but also most importantly with another vital loved one, our self. The quality of empathy we give or receive from one another, accordingly allows us to go to places of inner and intra peace that transcend words.


The Relationship Building Power of Empathy: Seven Actions of Empathic Listeners, 3 of 3

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2014). The Relationship Building Power of Empathy: Seven Actions of Empathic Listeners, 3 of 3. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Apr 2014
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