Empathy Listening Skills – 9 Simple Ways to Improve Your Marriage

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My wife and I used to struggle with our communication; to really be and feel heard. We had heard of empathic or empathetic listening, so we decided to see how empathy listening skills could help communication in our marriage.

Here’s what we learned:

Empathy listening skills help relationships by allowing each partner to really feel and understand what the other is feeling and experiencing. By putting ourselves in the shoes of another, we gain a much better understanding of their perspective. That, in turn, can make all the difference in a successful relationship.

But the reality is that it’s not that simple. Many couples struggle to really hear each other.

A lot of conversations filled with “I already told you that!”?  This breakdown of communication can derail even the best relationships and bring a lot of friction and anger into it.

Empathetic or empathy listening skills could be the key to improving communication in your relationship. So in this post, we’ll take a lot at exactly what that is.

More importantly, we’ll walk through just how easy it is to implement it in your relationship and bring back peace and harmony.

If you want to strengthen your marriage, or if it’s a little rocky, then check out this free video on how to Mend Your Marriage (click to watch on their site). It’s from renowned marriage guru Brad Browning and he’s literally helped save thousands of marriages.

What is empathetic listening?


Empathetic listening is essentially listening to another and putting ourselves in their shoes.

Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy, however. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone which, essentially, puts us above them. Empathy is understanding how we would feel if we were experiencing what the other is going through.

To foster empathy listening, we have to “seek to understand” and to connect to the other on an emotional level.

One way to connect to another empathically is with active listening.

With active listening, you repeat back what you just heard to make sure you understand correctly. It also helps the speaker feel really heard.

You can also ask questions about how whatever is bothering them made them feel. 

As an example, my wife might say, “one of my students hit me today” (she works with special needs kids). 

If I am practicing active listening, I could say “One of your students hit you?” or “Are you OK?”

Another way to respond could be, “I’m sure that’s upsetting. Did you want to talk about it?” Ultimately, I’m trying to understand what she’s feeling and relate to how that would make me feel. 

I am NOT trying to suggest how she can/could have handled it or just go off about how it’s not fair to her to be in that work environment.

Why empathic listening is important?

Communication is the cornerstone of everything that’s important in life.

Whether it’s building your career, being a great spouse, or learning to be an awesome parent, if you don’t communicate well, you will struggle in all those areas.

Empathetic or empathic listening as it’s sometimes called is just a better way to listen.

It’s putting ourselves in the shoes of others, not so we can feel sorry for them, or offer constructive feedback. No, instead, it simply allows us to fully understand what they are going through so they feel heard and supported.

It’s also very non-judgemental. 

So as you learn to incorporate empathetic listening skills into your day to day communication, you will find that people learn to trust you more and it will build camaraderie and loyalty with all who get to experience that from you.

How can you improve relationships with active listening?

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My wife and I have almost always struggled with communication.

In the past, we’ve been compared to Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk of Star Trek. Typically I am Spock in that scenario, but we have occasionally flip-flopped.

I have a tendency to be hyper-focused on efficiency. Thus I can sometimes not be focused on what’s being said and instead focus either on what’s next on my to-do list or how to fix the problem my wife is describing.

In both cases, I am not practicing empathic listening skills.

My wife isn’t feeling heard. Thus she’s more apt to feel frustrated or repeat herself, making the conversation take longer. 

I in my efficiency mode then get frustrated that what should have been a quick conversation is getting drug out. 

I also don’t feel appreciated for my attempts to “fix” her problems.  Repeat and escalate.

My wife, on the other hand, being the Pisces that she is, tends to pepper her conversation with flowery language. 

She might go off on a few unrelated tangents.

Or she might start thinking something in her head and then finish the thought out loud. You can bet the way she communicates can confuse an analytical mind like mine.

I like to know “the what, where, how, when and why”. 

She wants me to realize that the sky isn’t actually blue, it’s just that the blue colored molecules emanating from the sun get scattered more than the red ones due to how the atmosphere refracts the light.

Thus, I struggle with giving her my undivided attention in communication and she struggles with giving clear, concise communication. Rinse and repeat.

If you just can’t get the communication in your marriage or relationship right, I can’t recommend marriage counseling more.

With the right therapist, it’s a fantastic tool to improve your relationship.

If you have questions about what they do, what it costs, how long you have to go, or anything else, I break it all down in my Ultimate Guide to Marriage Counseling (click to read my post now).

What is empathic listening in communication?

Empathic listing is essentially practicing being mindful in a conversation. The words empathic or empathetic are interchangeable,

What do I mean by mindful?

I mean focusing on one task at a time (in this case listening). I also mean really hearing the words and not just waiting for your turn to talk. You also need to listen without judgment. You are completely focused on your partner and what they are saying.

It may be that you completely disagree with what’s being said.

That’s totally OK. But it’s vital that you understand and accept that to the other person, this is truly how they feel.

And, most importantly, they value you and the relationship enough to address it.  In this case, silence is NOT golden.

In fact, the Silent Treatment (click to read my article on its devastating effects) can slowly kill your relationship. 

If you or your spouse tend to practice the silent treatment in the heat of the argument, I highly recommend you take a moment and check out my much-shared post on that subject.

When you do speak, it can be helpful to simply acknowledge how the other person is feeling. Repeat back what you heard to ensure you really heard what they were trying to say. 

As with any conversation that might escalate, ask questions more than just make statements.

If we look at the definition of the word empathy, it means, according to Merriam-Webster, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”.

In other words, you are putting yourself in their shoes and trying to feel how they feel about the situation at hand. 

Thus empathic listening skills are simply tools that we can learn and apply to help foster better communication.

Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy, however. We aren’t trying to feel sorry for the other person.

We are trying to relate and understand where they are coming from.  Sympathy has a way of making us feel superior. In this situation, it’s vital to remain equals.

These empathic listening skills can work in any environment but they can be especially useful in relationships and marriages.

After all, these are usually the people we are closest to, spend the most time with, and with whom we have our guard down the most.

What are the four types of listeners?

The 4 types of listeners may refer to:

  • Active listeners – Actively engaged with the person speaking. They make eye contact, may connect physically, they are 100% focused on the speaker and what’s being said
  • Passive listeners – They may not be speaking or checking their phone, but they aren’t outwardly letting the speaker know they are listening or really hearing what’s being said
  • Non-listeners – As the name implies, a non-listener isn’t focused at all on the speaker or what’s being said. They may be on their phone, making notes unrelated to the conversation or otherwise totally distracted
  • Evaluative listeners – This person makes judgments about the speaker and what’s being said. They also focus more on preparing their response than they do what is being said

But it may also refer to:

  • People – This type of listener is focused on the person speaking and interested, not necessarily in what is being said, but in the person themselves and how they feel
  • Action – This type of listener wants to cut to the chase (guilty). What is wrong and how can we fix it
  • Content – This person focuses on what is being said, whether it’s true, accurate, or otherwise and their evaluation affects their view of your credibility
  • Time – Similar to action listeners in that they want to get the cliff notes version of the issue. They may become distracted or disinterested if the speaker doesn’t get to the point quickly

Unfortunately, there are a few different schools of thought out there on listening types, so there are different definitions depending on which source you go to.

Ultimately, though, they all provide some value in helping us be better listeners and better communicators.

How do you let someone know you are listening?

Most of us don’t really listen.

We wait for our turn to talk. Instead of really hearing the other person, we’re busy thinking about why they are wrong and formulating our response.

Then you have your turn and the other person does the same thing. 

The volumes and tempers increase and eventually it ends in yelling and both people storming off thinking the other is an a-hole.

We go off to our corner feeling indignant, questioning why we’re with this person and what’s wrong with them.

We question if they really even love us and wonder why they aren’t able to understand what we’re feeling.

In truth, in most cases, BOTH people brought as much baggage to the conversation as the other and both played roles in how the conversation degenerated.

Listening properly, practicing empathic listening skills, is more than just being quiet.

  • Look at the person in their eyes
  • If it’s not already a tense situation, physically connect with touch
  • Slow your breathing
  • Focus on what they are saying and trying to feel what they feel

You might feel completely differently but understand that to them, this IS their reality. 

And if you want to understand that reality you have to accept that this is how they feel. And that you have done things that contributed to it, either through actions or words, or the lack thereof.

Believe it or not, but “basic incompatibility” is the number one reason for divorce. 

Spouses or partners not feeling heard or valued by their significant other is a HUGE part of that incompatibility. 

If your relationship feels rocky or headed towards a breakup, I strongly suggest you take a minute and check out my #1 post on relationships called Top 3 Reasons for Divorce (click to read my article which breaks them all down).

What is active listening and how is that different?

Active listening is essentially practicing empathic listening skills. 

However, you can take it a little further by paying attention to things like body language.  Our body language can often convey how we’re really feeling, even if our words don’t.

Thus you may notice that what your partner is saying and their body language doesn’t match. It could be they don’t feel comfortable enough with the situation to really be honest.

Try focusing on the person’s words and body language.

Also, make sure your own body language isn’t sending the wrong signals and is helping to calm and de-escalate the conversation. 

If you have noticed they weren’t being completely forthcoming, your own body language can help make them more comfortable in being honest.

How can empathy be used for better communication?

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Practicing empathic listening skills can benefit your relationship in many ways, such as:

  1. Building trust
  2. Improving connection
  3. Reducing tension
  4. Fostering better communication in the future (because your partner knows they can trust you to really hear them)

You may not even resolve the conflict in the first meeting. That’s OK! But you have taken your first step towards fostering better communication for all future conversations.

There’s a misnomer out there that somehow “successful” couples don’t fight or argue. 

We do! But there’s a huge difference between a healthy argument where both people feel heard and supported and one that continues to escalate until it explodes.

There was a time a few years back where my wife and I would have really destructive arguments.

We would yell, name call, belittle and criticize each other. I was probably worse in that regards but we both did it.

We also both had a tendency to never apologize and to justify why something we had done that was wrong wasn’t really our fault.

In truth that’s a tendency, we both still struggle with today, although we’ve both improved light years from a decade ago.

Successful couples argue, but they don’t forget that they and their spouse are a team.  They may disagree on this issue, but they have the same big-picture goals.  They are united in the grand scheme of things.

Your spouse or partner is often the person we love and trust the most.  The person with whom we are most vulnerable.  So it’s vitally important that when we argue we are expressing how a given situation makes us feel and not just putting our partner down.

If you and your partner struggle with contempt, criticism, stonewalling or defensiveness, just know those are the 4 worst things that anyone can do in a relationship.

But don’t take my word for it!  That’s according to world-renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. 

His book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (click to read my review) may have literally saved my marriage. 

I dive deep into what he calls The 4 Horsemen (click to read my article which breaks down all 4) in a highly popular post. 

So if your relationship struggles with those, as mine did, take a moment and see how you can turn that around!

So what are my . . . 

9 Vital Ways Empathy Listening Skills Can Help Your Relationship?

1. BE HEARD!

You and your spouse or partner will feel heard (finally!)

2. FEEL VALIDATED

Your and your partner’s feelings will feel validated.

3. ARGUE LESS

The arguments will become fewer and shorter (with fewer nights sleeping on the couch).

4. INTIMACY IMPROVES

As you improve emotional intimacy, all forms of intimacy improve (hint, hint).

5. LISTEN, DON’T FIX

You will realize (especially us guys) that our spouse just wants to be heard and that we don’t need to try and “fix” what’s wrong.  When our spouse doesn’t feel heard because we’re too focused on trying to fix the problem, their emotional burden stays with them.

6. YOU’LL REMEMBER MORE

By being mindful and really listening, you are much more likely to really remember what you’re being told. So there will be less “I told you that already” conflicts.

7. BETTER COMMUNICATION EVERYWHERE

The skills you practice here will help you in ALL walks of life; conversations with your boss, your parents, co-workers and everyone else you interact with.

8. IMPROVED CONNECTION

In your relationship, you are likely to find that as your empathic listening skills improve, your partner is more and more likely to confide in you rather than outsiders about what’s going on in their life.

9. IMPROVED MOTIVATION

As you spend more time connecting with your partner and less time arguing, that time and energy that used to be spent on arguing and damage control can now be spent much more productively!

Did we cover all you wanted to know about empathy listening skills and relationships?

In this post, we took an in-depth look at empathetic listening, sometimes called empathic listening.

We examined what it is, how it can help your relationship and why it works.

Specifically, we looked at 9 vital ways empathic listening can take your relationship to the next level.

If your marriage is struggling with communication, then check out this quick video on how to Mend Your Marriage (click to watch the free video on their site) that will help get yours back on track.

Are you a good listener?

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Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market.

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