Empathetic Listening

Citation: Huitt, W. (2009). Empathetic listening. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/process/listen.html

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Empathetic listening is paying attention to another person with empathy [emotional identification, compassion, feeling, insight]. One basic principle is to "seek to understand, before being understood. Another basic principle is to connect emotionally with another person while simultaneously attempting to connect cognitively. An excellent technique to help one connect cognitively is called "active listening" whereby you repeat back to the person what you think she or he said to make certain you understand. A technique to connect emotionally is to ask how the person feels about the situation or perhaps to make a statement about how you believe the person feels.

For example, a student might say, "My dog got hit by a car this morning." An active listening response might be, "Your dog got hit by a car?" or "Was it hurt?" Another response might be, "I can see this has upset you. Do you want to talk about it?" Whatever the response, it is intended to clarify the facts or information being presented [obtain understanding] and to identify and respond to the emotions or feelings of the other person.

Empathy is not sympathy. Whereas sympathy is "feeling for someone," empathy is "feeling as someone."

The most important issue about empathetic listening in a classroom setting is when to use it. The general rule is that teachers have a right to teach and students have a right to learn. When the teacher and student can engage in a dialogue that does not violate their individual rights or the rights of others, then empathy is certainly appropriate. However, when either a student or another person is attempting to engage in a dialogue that is disruptive and violates the rights of the teacher and/or students, then the teacher needs to be assertive and bring the class back to order.

An example might be helpful. During my first year of teaching I focused quickly on classroom management and keeping an orderly, though engaging, classroom. Rules were posted and most students were reasonably well-behaved. One morning towards the end of October, I began to feel a little queasy during my 45-minute commute to school. By the time school started, I knew I was in trouble. I tried to "tough it out," but about half-way through my first period class I just had to leave. And leave quickly.

About 10 minutes later, after I had washed the bad taste out of my mouth and put some cool water on my face, I walked back into the classroom to find one of my male students standing in the back of the room throwing an eraser to another male student who was running a down-and-out pattern in the front of my room. Needless to say I was not happy. I sternly ordered them back to their desks and did my best to stay in the classroom for the remainder of the class period.

As the bell was ringing and the other students filed out, I had both students stay behind. In a fairly gruff, coach-like manner I said something like, "What in the blazes do you guys think you were doing?" Both of these young men were stars on the eighth-grade football team and I was completely caught off guard when one of them burst into tears.

After quickly dismissing the other student, I quietly asked the one who was crying, "What's wrong." He told a story of his father having been fired from work several months ago, of his drinking and fighting with everyone in the house, how the sheriff had come to the house telling his parents that they would have to leave if they didn't pay their mortgage, and so forth. By this time students from the next class were coming in so I escorted him down to the counselor's office where he might discuss the situation a little more privately.

The principle of empathetic listening versus assertiveness is exemplified by my obtaining order first, getting the students back to work, and then dealing with the situation in a way that did not disrupt my right to teach or other students rights to learn. Empathy is a very important and useful method of communication, but it must be used appropriately in a classroom situation.

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