I often hear people refer to the act of listening in terms of mechanics - staying focused, asking the right questions, not interrupting, and the like. While these are important, they are only part of the story. Lack of context forces us to consciously figure out on the fly, which of these listening techniques to use. An impossible task! And so we revert to our old habits. However, knowing that the overarching goal is to listen with empathy makes the task much easier. We begin to use the most appropriate listening techniques intuitively.
Here’s a thought. What’s your goal each time you listen during a conversation? Be honest.
Obviously, our aims for conversing with others differ greatly with context. Compare, for example, your conversational aims in social gatherings, daily family life, business negotiations, and conflict resolution. But what about in the moments when we’re actually listening?
I believe that there is just one listening goal. We're seeking to understand the speaker.
"There's just one listening goal. We're seeking to understand the speaker." Andrew Ward
This may sound like a no-brainer. But for myself, I know that I'm often more intent on trying to get other people to understand me. Unfortunately, this self-absorbed focus prevents me from truly understanding the message that they are trying to convey. And ultimately, it also hinders us from achieving those broader conversational aims.
Let's explore two key aspects of understanding the speaker.
Listen For Total Meaning
The first key aspect is to realise that the speaker’s message is composed of more than just the literal meaning of the words spoken.
In 1957 Dr. Carl Rogers and graduate student Richard Farson jointly published the original, pioneering article on Active Listening. In that article they pointed out that:
“Any message a person tries to get across usually has two components: the content of the message and the feeling or attitude underlying this content.” 
Take as an example, my work as an electrical engineer. It's mostly project-based. I finish one project and move onto the next. Let's suppose that I report to my team leader, “That design project is finished.” One obvious interpretation is that I'm indicating my readiness to start another project.
But what if I grumped, “That design project is finished.” The literal content is the same. But the disgruntled attitude conveys an entirely different meaning! My team leader would possibly begin thinking that a problem needs addressing before they can give me the next project.
Understanding the Content
Drawing meaning from the content is relatively straightforward. In the example above, the literal meaning is simply that "the project has been completed." Typically, verbal cues help us to identify the content's meaning. Here are a few:
Interpreting Underlying Feelings and Attitudes
Underlying feelings and attitudes however, can be more easily misinterpreted because they are expressed by non-verbal behaviour. Here are some common cues that we use to express our feelings and attitudes: gestures, facial expressions, abnormal silence, posture, tone of voice, volume, rate of speech.
A simple, yet highly effective method of testing your understanding / interpretation is to ‘reflect’ these feelings and attitudes.
Reflect the speaker's feelings by first taking note of these non-verbal cues. Secondly, verbally describe what you're seeing to the speaker when they pause. Then follow up with a clarifying question or statement.
Here’s how you might reflect the feelings that you’re seeing.
Don't be afraid of misinterpreting their cues. You’ll be okay if you phrase your observations as suggestions (“It sounds like you’re irritated”) rather than as dogmatic statements (“I see you’re irritable”). The speaker will usually correct you by verbalising what they’re truly feeling if you did misunderstand them (“Actually, I’m just exhausted. I didn't get any sleep. My puppy whimpered all night.”)
Summary - Listen For Total Meaning
- Pay attention to both the content and underlying feelings.
- Verbal cues help us interpret the content of the speaker's message.
- Non-verbal cues point to underlying feelings and attitudes.
- 'Reflect' relevant feelings and attitudes to test your understanding.
The second key aspect is to listen with empathy. To comprehend the total meaning of what we're being told, we must be able to empathise with the other person.
One aspect of empathy is seeing the discussion topic from the speaker's perspective. That is, we have empathy when we're identifying with and understanding their emotions.  Sometimes this is called ‘perspective taking’ or ‘cognitive empathy’.
As the listener, our goal is to imagine that we are the speaker in their situation, not us in their situation. 
To me, culture is a perfect example. We often try to imagine what a culture is like as an outside observer, using our own worldview. Empathy however, is understanding a culture by imagining ourselves as someone who has grown up inside that culture with their worldview.
Achieving the speaker's insider perspective is much harder than defaulting to our outsider perspective. But making the effort to listen with empathy reaps big rewards in terms of appreciating their aspirations, struggles, and needs.
Note however, that understanding somebody’s perspective doesn't mean needing to agree with them. If you disagree with something said, firstly withhold judgement and seek to understand their perspective. Then share why you disagree.
How to Listen With Empathy
Here are some tips for putting yourself completely in the shoes of the other person:
Empathy Can Be Risky
However, there's a big "But" with empathy.
To successfully listen with empathy, we must let our viewpoints be challenged (remember, no speaking or interrupting, even if you disagree). Because of this, Rogers and Farson stress that empathising carries a strong element of personal risk. In seeking to see the world through the eyes of another - to sense their feelings and to grasp the importance of their experiences to them - we risk changing our own worldview. This requires a great deal of inner security and courage. 
Summary - Empathic Listening
- Aim to see the discussion topic from the speaker's perspective. Imagine that you are the speaker in their situation.
- To listen with empathy doesn't mean needing to agree with the speaker's view.
- Talk only to ask questions and to reflect feelings.
- Keep an open-mind.
- Be willing to let your viewpoints be challenged and even changed.
Our Goal As Listeners
Knowing that our goal is to listen with empathy makes listening more intentional and intuitive. Instead of drifting aimlessly through the conversation, our focus shifts from ourselves to the other person. We engage proactively with their message, rather than passively allowing their words to wash past us. And using the most appropriate listening technique in response to what they’re saying becomes automatic.
Empathic listening will look different depending on the type of conversation. But the essence is the same. We’re listening in order to understand the total meaning of speaker’s message - the content, and feelings and attitudes - from their perspective.
What’s one thing that you can do this week to better understand people that speak with you? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
- 1See the following article: Rogers, C., Farson, R. E., "Active Listening", Gordon Training Inc., www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/active-listening/, Extract from 1957 article. We’ll examine Active Listening in a future blog post.
- 2This is why Active Listening is often called ‘Empathic Listening,’ 'Empathetic Listening,' 'Reflective Listening,' 'Listen with Empathy', etc.
- 3Dr Elizabeth Segal gives a helpful description of empathy and how it differs from sympathy and compassion. See her blog post titled "Empathy Is More Than “I Hear You”, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/social-empathy/201808/empathy-is-more-i-hear-you, 2 Aug 2018.