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 In this episode of the WorkMinded podcast, learn how active-empathetic listening can improve your relationships and help you cope better with challenges.


In This Episode

00:34 - What Is Active Listening?

00:59 - The Role of Active Listening in Caregiving

01:42 - Active Listening Leads to Improved Relationships and Coping

02:36 - What Is Active-Empathetic Listening?

03:24 - Steps to Practice Active-Empathetic Listening

04:01 - Active-Empathetic Listening Helps You Support vs Solve

04:38 - Mindfulness Session for Active-Empathetic Listening


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Episode Transcript

Hey everyone, and welcome to WorkMinded. In our new roles as universal caregivers, understanding and connecting with all types of people is becoming increasingly important. In today’s session we’ll explore Active-Empathetic Listening, and how this style of listening can improve relationships and help us cope better with challenges.

Most of us have heard of active listening at some point. But have you ever stopped to think about what it actually means? When the idea of active listening made the leap into mainstream organizational literature, it became a little disconnected from its original intentions. But by looking at both the future direction and the background of active listening, we can see that it provides benefits not just to the speaker, but to the listener too.

The general ideas behind active listening evolved within the helping professions like counseling and healthcare. One side of the coin supports patients and those being cared for. Active listening helped the providers of these services to gather information about the people using them, to help ensure that the services remained truly focused on these patients.1 But the other side of the coin supports the service providers themselves. Research has shown that active listening can play a key role in how caregivers are able to manage their own reactions when they are responding to people in distress.2 Now that we’ve all become universal caregivers, it’s important to understand that active listening can benefit not only those who are being cared for, but those who are providing this care as well.

A lot of work has also been done on how active listening might be applied to settings outside of caregiver occupations. As it turns out, active listening has been shown to lead to improved relationships and more effective coping. There’s evidence that active listening is important for the wellbeing of both individuals and relationships, and the evidence that an active listening style supports both coping and improved relationships is strong.3 Talking about our stress with others is a totally normal response to difficult situations, and showing support when people turn to you in times of distress can help to ease their stress, improve mental and physical wellbeing, and ultimately to strengthen the relationship.4 Some research even suggests our internal reward system lights up when we sense someone listening to us actively, making us feel more positively toward situations where we experience this kind of interaction.5

While active listening is powerful on its own, it can have an even stronger effect when combined with empathy. Active-Empathetic Listening (or AEL) is related to your ability to be both actively AND emotionally involved in an interaction.6 It’s a two-way street where the listener makes a conscious effort to be engaged, and this effort is also felt by the speaker.7 This combination provides a few benefits unique to AEL. It helps you to focus more on the speaker, rather than on your own emotions and experiences. It helps you to learn more about the context of what someone is saying, and to understand them on a deeper level. Finally, it helps to separate what is being said from personal feelings, so that you can offer better appreciation and support for someone’s experience.8

To practice Active-Empathetic Listening, you can focus on a few steps. First, try to be available. You need a certain amount of mental space to sustain the listening effort9 and interaction involvement10 required for this type of conversation. Second, don’t be afraid to rehearse if you know a significant conversation is coming up. People who imagine their upcoming interactions and the different ways they might go are better at showing supportive behaviors during the conversation.11 And third, pay attention to the subtext. Being aware of and recalling underlying meanings in conversations can help you be more effective at AEL.12

Inspiring deeper understanding and closer connection is a significant part of our new roles as universal caregivers. Today’s session will help you to create the space and the mindset to practice Active-Empathetic Listening in your everyday conversations. We’ll also practice getting comfortable with what can feel a lot like having to be still or not taking action, when we’re listening with the intent to support instead of the intent to solve. This will help both you and others to develop more supportive relationships and more effective ways of coping with challenges. So let’s get started with today’s mindfulness session.

Today’s mindfulness session will practice some tools that will help to develop the enhanced coping and relationships that can come from Active-Empathetic Listening. By learning just to be present and to cultivate an attitude of curiosity, you’ll become more comfortable with simply being there for someone, listening to provide support instead of taking action to provide a solution. 

To start, take some time to settle in. Sit up straight, shimmy out any wiggles, and get comfortable. Check in with yourself. Sometimes mindfulness can be uncomfortable – either mentally or physically – so if at any point things feel too intense, just take a step back and go get any space or help you need. 

Start to sink into the current moment. Let your current thoughts about any responsibilities or obligations melt away. In a way that’s comfortable for you, take time just to exist without worrying about doing anything. Don’t worry about closing your eyes; just let your eyes become closed. Don’t worry about breathing; just let your body feel breathed. And don’t worry about emptying your mind; instead, let your mind be emptied. And just be.

In this space, there are no to do lists, no future or past. It might feel a little bit uncomfortable. Most of us aren’t really used to just being without doing. But remember that your primary purpose is to just be here now, and that is enough. There’s just this breath, in this moment, right now. Your task is simply to be here, fully and completely. Just exist. And that’s enough for right now.

As you continue to sit, you may start to notice judgments entering your mind. How can I be sitting still and doing nothing, especially when so much is swirling in the world around us today? Sometimes our greatest power is in presence rather than action. Remember how critical it is simply to be, to show up. Without that, we have no action at all. So try to suspend any judgments. The “now” is a place of genuine support, not a place of active solving. By learning to be comfortable in this stillness, we can more effectively support ourselves and others.

If you do notice judgments arising, or other thoughts or emotions entering into now, acknowledge them. Think of them like guests at your now party. You don’t want to be rude and ignore them or kick them out. Instead, greet them and show some curiosity. Where did they just come from? Why were they invited? How was their trip to get here – did they drive, was there traffic? Be curious about where they came from and why they joined. Then, end your conversation with them. Let them drift away to go mingle, so you can go back to enjoying your now party. And return again to your stillness. And just be. 

Continue to practice this curiosity toward any thoughts or emotions that come up for you. Practicing curiosity in the moment helps us get better at bringing that curiosity into the rest of our lives.

Now we’ll start to wind down our practice. Slowly start to come back to being present. Hear any sounds around you. Start to make small movements with your fingers and toes, then your hands and feet. And finally, gently open your eyes to take in the space around you.

Your call to action for this session is to try out just being there to be a support to someone, rather than trying to take action and solve their concerns. Being a curious listener will help both you and them to cope better and strengthen your relationship. And in today’s climate, it’s up to all of us to foster deeper understanding and connections for each other.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.


Research Footnotes

1 Nemec, P. B., Spagnolo, A. C., & Soydan, A. S. (2017). Can you hear me now? Teaching listening skills. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 40(4), 415–417.

2 Altabef, D., Meier, S., Reynolds, A., Delucia, J. & Friedling, L. (2017), Therapist response to a distressed client: Differences in active listening and changes in negative affect. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 17(3), 234-239. doi:10.1002/capr.12124.

3 Bodie, G.D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and Evidence of Validity Within the Interpersonal Domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277-295. DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2011.583495.

4 Bodie, G.D., Vickery, A.J., Cannava, K., & Jones, S.M. (2015). The Role of “Active Listening” in Informal Helping Conversations: Impact on Perceptions of Listener Helpfulness, Sensitivity, and Supportiveness and Discloser Emotional Improvement. Western Journal of Communication, 79(2), 151-173. DOI: 10.1080/10570314.2014.943429

5 Kawamichi, H., Yoshihara, K., Sasaki, A.T., Sugawara, S.K., Tanabe, H.C., Shinohara, R., Sugisawa, Y., Tokutake, K., Mochizuki, Y., Anme, T., & Sadato, N. (2015). Perceiving active listening activates the reward system and improves the impression of relevant experiences. Social Neuroscience, 10(1), 16-26. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.954732.

6,7 Bodie, G.D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and Evidence of Validity Within the Interpersonal Domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277-295. DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2011.583495.

8 Drollinger, T., Comer, L.B. & Warrington, P.T. (2006). Development and validation of the active empathetic listening scale. Psychology & Marketing, 23(2), 161-180. doi:10.1002/mar.20105.

9 Strand, J.F., Brown, V.A., Merchant, M.B., Brown, H.E., & Smith, J. (2018). Measuring Listening Effort: Convergent Validity, Sensitivity, and Links With Cognitive and Personality Measures. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(6), 1463-1486. DOI: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-H-17-0257.

10 Bodie, G.D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and Evidence of Validity Within the Interpersonal Domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277-295. DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2011.583495.

11 Vickery, A.J., Keaton, S.A., & Bodie, G.D. (2015). Intrapersonal Communication and Listening Goals: An Examination of Attributes and Functions of Imagined Interactions and Active-Empathic Listening Behaviors. Southern Communication Journal, 80(1), 20-38. DOI: 10.1080/1041794X.2014.939295.

12 Bodie, G.D. (2011). The Active-Empathic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and Evidence of Validity Within the Interpersonal Domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3), 277-295. DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2011.583495.