Listening for empathy
Empathy and listening skills for effective teaching
If effective teaching depends on good relationships, these depend in turn on our ability to empathise and listen, according to Dr. Paul Parham.
Why empathy is important
Empathy represents one of the most important ways in which we connect with others. For teachers, the quality of our relationships with students, fellow staff members, and parents is likely to have a significant impact on how successful we are in our role. Crucial to the notion of being empathic is actively seeking to ‘look out of the other’s window’ and see things as they do given the context of their past experiences. Being truly empathic should always be about the other person and their frame of reference. A common mistake is to try and empathise by considering how we would feel in the speaker’s shoes, but inadvertently doing so from our perspective, rather than theirs. Being empathic also means we must put aside our own views and values, and gently enter another’s world without judgement or prejudice. By seeking to understand the speaker from their frame of reference, we communicate that we are trying to understand them at a deeper level and that we care. Hence, empathy is essential for developing stronger and healthier relationships that have meaning and purpose (1).
Nature or nurture?
Our ability to empathise has both genetic and environmental components, although research suggests that the genetic contribution decreases and environmental influence increases with age (2). There is strong evidence that the ability to empathise can be learned and we can all improve our empathic skills. However, becoming more empathic cannot occur without improving our active listening skills. In active listening, we are not passive and simply hearing. Using active listening techniques we focus completely on the speaker and this process is “active” because the listener has a role to play, namely consciously to concentrate on and really understand what is being said, as well as the meanings and feelings behind the words.
Developing listening skills.
If this is the case, how can listening skills be developed? Here are some essential pointers:
1. Listen with more than the ears
Pay attention to the speaker’s body language, what is not being said or what is only partially said and notice any inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages.
2. Avoid interrupting
It is tempting to rehearse what we may say in response and interrupt in case we forget. By doing this, however, the focus is no longer on the speaker, so we should be patient and not prematurely cut the speaker off with questions, comments, or corrections.
3. Let people know we are listening through your verbal responses
We can do this using skills such as paraphrasing (putting in our own words the message the speaker is trying to communicate), reflecting (expressing what the speaker has said in their own words and reflecting back the content and feelings associated with the message), and summarising (concisely bringing together what the speaker has said to ensure accuracy of the main messages).
4. Let people know we are listening through your non-verbal responses.
As far as possible, we should remain neutral and calm in outward appearance (even if we do not feel it) and be aware of how our non-verbal cues may suggest judgements, as this may affect the speaker’s emotions and willingness to continue sharing. Positive examples include smiling, nodding, and making eye contact.
5. Listen to yourself and how you might feel in their situation.
It is vital that we do this, however, from the speaker’s frame of reference, not ours. We should be cautious too about sharing our own ‘similar’ experiences, as we risk invalidating, undermining, or devaluing their experiences by doing so.
6. Avoid solving the speaker’s problem in your head.
We cannot do this and listen to the speaker simultaneously, and we should allow the speaker the dignity of making their own decisions and not take the problem from them. Giving unsolicited advice can also act as a significant barrier to listening and it is often not what people need when choosing to share things with us.
7. Work on your listening skills!
By actively listening, working hard to understand the other’s frame of reference, and asking effective questions, we create an environment in which the speaker feels safe and listened to. Many people like to believe that they are good listeners, but it is important to recognise that we are not always the best judge of this, as we rarely have access to knowledge on how our listening skills impact the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of other people. By obtaining feedback on our empathic and listening skills, we can then improve both with active practice and develop healthier relationships in our work.
Dr Paul Parham is a teacher of IB Mathematics at Sevenoaks School
(1) Demetriou H. Nature Versus Nurture: The Biology and Psychology of Empathy. Empathy, Emotion and Education: Springer; 2018. p. 129-157.
(2) Knafo A, Plomin R. Prosocial behavior from early to middle childhood: genetic and environmental influences on stability and change. Dev Psychol 2006;42(5):771.
More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School: https://www.sevenoaksschool.org/teachinglearning/research/innovate/