Supporting Loved Ones in Pain – by Marissa Halstead

One of the many benefits of counseling is that counselors use empathic listening skills, which is a form of active listening. Active listening takes a certain level of thoughtfulness before we speak, and is different from what we often experience in friendships. Most of us want to help others in need, but aren’t quite sure where to start. Empathic listening is an effective way that we can support our loved ones in their most painful moments, and most importantly – it’s something that can be learned!

What Empathic Listening is Not

We’ve all experienced comments like, “At least you don’t have it as bad as…”, “You’ll be fine,” or, “Don’t be sad! Cheer up!” All of these examples are what not to do and are not examples of empathic listening. These comments leave people feeling unheard and sometimes wishing that they hadn’t brought anything up in the first place. Sometimes, people are insecure in what they are telling us and comments like these can lead to even greater insecurity. Even though we might mean well by saying these things, they are not actually helpful to the person who is suffering. 

What Empathic Listening Is

When our loved ones go through difficulties, they want our support and presence.  When they share something hard with us, we try to understand what they are going through, we connect with that experience (for example, we imagine what must it be like to feel lonely or rejected or inadequate or whatever they are feeling), and we stay present with them.  

Psychologist Carl Rogers had a lot to say about empathy and empathic listening. When someone is empathically listening, Rogers would say that the listener is, “entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it.” Even though we absolutely want to get the person we love out of the pain they are in, empathy puts that on hold in order to experience their reality with them. When we change our motives from fixing to seeking to understand, we gain more compassion for our loved one. Better yet, the person being heard feels more seen and understood in what they’re experiencing. 

How to Empathically Listen

Even if this sounds intimidating, empathic listening is something that anyone can do! Some tips for the next time you are listening to someone are: 

  1. Don’t interrupt the person talking to you 
  2. Reflect back the emotions that he or she is talking about
  3. Keep the focus on the person sharing 

Here are some responses and examples of empathic listening: 

  1. “That sounds really hard.” 
  2. “It sounds like you’re saying…is that accurate?”
  3. “I am here for you.” 
  4. *Saying nothing at all*  but nod or give a non-verbal indication that you are there with them.

If you find yourself struggling to feel understood, reach out today! Myself and other counselors at Envision would love to process with you so that you can live a better and more fulfilling life.