Friday, October 30, 2009

Tip #2: Empathy--- The Art of Reflective Listening


"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

My father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer several years ago. We got the news in mid-March. After doing some internet research, we knew that his time would be short. We also discovered that most treatments were palliative, not curative. There was no remission or cure for this type of cancer. I was shocked. My grief started when I realized what this diagnosis meant. My father-in-law died four short months later.

I shared his condition with various communities: my colleagues at work, my own family, and my church community. Some people were appropriately supportive. With them I found I could be honest about my feelings and reactions. Others were not so supportive, though I am sure they thought they were being helpful. I found myself avoiding this group. When I was around them I stopped talking about the situation. It left me tired and often avoiding large groups.

What were some individuals doing wrong? I think my grief and despair overwhelmed them. They didn't want to hear my pain since they didn't know how to change my circumstances. When I shared my reaction about my father-in-law's prognosis, they tried to offer suggestions of cures or urged me to pray for his recovery. Although sweet, their suggestions failed to register what I needed. I was looking for a listening ear or a hug, not more problem-solving. They wanted me to hope, when I needed to grieve.

It is easy to fail at being supportive. It takes hard work and a willingness to tolerate another's pain. Think back to the last time you were with someone who was emotionally or physically suffering. Didn't you feel awkward?

Being supportive means being ok with not having any answers. Most suffering people don't want more solutions. Usually we are pretty good at problem-solving. Instead those suffering are looking for understanding and empathy. I needed my friends to hear my pain about my father-in-law dying and sympathize with me.

So how do you help? One psychological technique students learn in graduate school is "reflective listening." It is actually pretty basic and something anyone can do with a high degree of success. Reflective listening is simply hearing what the other person is saying and repeating the emotional content of their message back to them.

For example, Jane is sharing with Judy her thoughts about a recent test. She says, "I don't think I did very well. Questions 10 and 12 were really tough."
Judy replies, "You sound worried."
Jane sighs and say, "Yeah, I am."

That is reflective listening. Believe it or not, it is very powerful. The speaker feels empathetically connected when his or her feelings are correctly heard and accurately reflected back. It leads the conversation into more meaningful levels. It validates the speaker's emotional experience. It develops trust and rapport.

When using reflective listening, you will need to practice restraint. You may feel like you are not doing enough by just listening and reflecting back what you hear. Don't jump in by giving some quick solutions or telling the person in pain not to be discouraged. Be patient. If you think they do want some practical help, ask before giving it. What you are doing by listening is important work: it is loving another person.


  1. Such good thoughts on an oft-misunderstood topic! It is so good to find other believers who are telling others how to better demonstrate the love of Christ by listening reflectively! This has been a burden on my husband's heart for years and in 2008 he published his first book (written to help people like the ones you mentioned in this entry who didn't know what to do with your grief). You might be interested to check out "Please Listen to Me! A Christian's Guide to Reflective Listening" by Dick Fetzer. Also, visit his author weblog at and our ministry's website at

    God bless!
    Joanne Fetzer

  2. Oops! Noticed a typo in my message. Website is Sorry!