The Benefits of Empathic Listening: A Conversation with Lisa B. Nelson

Yesterday morning, while I was on the way to work, a dear friend of 30 years gave me a ring. We talk fairly frequently during my traffic-laden commutes. While we cover a range of topics, one that comes up frequently is the subject of relationships. I certainly have my own issues in this sphere, but hers are more acute at this time. She’s coming out of a long marriage and putting herself back together emotionally in the wake of a love affair that ended painfully.

I did what I often do when she shared how she’s feeling: I listened. I let her speak. I focused on what she was saying and how she was saying it. I didn’t try to fix her pain or tell her that she should be feeling something other than what she is. I told her I understood her feelings—which is true—and that I see how she’s healing, how she’s making progress in moving on emotionally, step by step.

Shortly after I got home last night, I received this text from her: “Thank you, Portland, for your presence and understanding. It helps to have a deep, sensitive, sober friend hear me out, be a witness without judgment. Love you.”

When we do something as simple as give others the gift of our full and compassionate attention, we make an impact more powerful than we might imagine. “I think we all intuitively know that, when we’re deeply listened to by the kind and loving attention of another human being, healing is possible,” says Lisa B. Nelson, Director of Medical Education at Kripalu. “Through empathic listening, we can actually affect the physiology and psychology of another person.”

Empathic listening is different from routine listening, common in our fast-paced and often self-absorbed culture. “Empathic listening is being fully present—mind, body, and spirit—for another person, with the goal of understanding that person's experience, without judgment,” explains Lisa. “Another term for it might be ‘attuned listening,’ where we attend fully to the emotions and experiences of another.”

Empathic listening lacks an agenda. When we listen in this way, we aren't waiting for a pause to insert our own story or opinion; we aren’t half-listening while simultaneously planning what to make for dinner. Our attention is fully focused on the person we’re listening to.

Lisa says that researchers have shown that people’s brain patterns synchronize when they truly listen to one another. “It’s a process called ‘brain-to-brain coupling,’” she notes, “and it's some of the first scientific research to show how listening changes the brain.” As well, when we listen empathically, we begin to notice the visible imprint of people’s emotions in their facial expressions and body posture. “The same sensations are then elicited in our own bodies through something called the mirror neuron system,” Lisa says. “This is how we come to ‘know’ how they feel.”

Since humans possess an innate need to connect with others, empathic listening can have far-reaching effects. “In early childhood especially,” Lisa says, “feeling that our needs are heard and understood forms the basis for secure attachment. Children and adults with secure attachments are more likely to have positive views of themselves and their relationships.”

Some researchers hypothesize that attuned, empathic listening can essentially rewire the brain toward a state of integration, altering previously insecure attachment patterns. “I think we all have the potential to do this for one another,” Lisa comments, “not just those in ‘listening’ professions like doctors or psychotherapists.”

Conversely, the opposite is true. “The spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hahn says that when no one listens to us, we become like a bomb waiting to explode,” Lisa says. “It’s invalidating and stressful not to feel heard and can cause physical sensations like chest tightness, nausea, or muscle tension.”

Researchers tracking increases in anxiety and depression—especially in the teenage population—have posited that they’re related to the increased use of technology and the lack of in-person, embodied, empathic listening. “A large body of data links social isolation with poor health outcomes,” Lisa adds, “including increased risk of infection, cognitive decline, depression, even mortality.”

On the flip side, scientists are uncovering a host of benefits associated with empathy. Couples who notice an increase in their partners’ empathy report feeling more satisfied in their relationships, while adolescents with higher levels of empathy manage conflict better than those with less.  Furthermore, when healthcare practitioners employ empathic listening, their patients feel less stress, are more apt to adhere to treatment,  and experience better outcomes.

Yet most of us are moving so fast that we forget to—or feel we can’t—make the time to slow down and really listen to one another, or to ourselves. “We have a number of distractions vying for our attention,” Lisa says, “like our phones, tablets, and computers. There are internal distractions, too. Our minds may be running through constant scripts, to-do lists, or worries that prevent us from really listening.”

In order to listen empathically, we need to do more than be fully present and nonjudgmental. “The pediatrician and psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel says that the full power of empathic listening is about the positive intentions we bring to it,” Lisa notes. Daniel identifies the four key states of being that help us arrive at attuned, embodied listening as curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.

To listen more fully to how we ourselves are feeling, the same principles apply. Rather than criticism, judgment, condemnation, or a fix-it mentality, simply noticing and being with our feelings can increase our happiness, initiative, and wisdom—if we take stock of those feelings with an attitude of self-acceptance and curiosity. They may even feed on one another. If we can begin to listen more empathically to ourselves, perhaps we can begin to do it for others, and vice versa.

Being deeply listened to calms us, because it helps us feel that we’re not alone—but empathic listening also benefits the listener. “When we’re able to truly listen to another person, we open ourselves up to the flow and story of human existence,” Lisa says, “to our shared humanity. In that moment, we move from ‘I’ into ‘we.’ That’s a rich and lovely feeling.”

Find out about upcoming programs with Lisa B. Nelson at Kripalu.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please email editor@kripalu.org.