How to Lend an Empathetic Ear - Promise
How to Lend an Empathetic Ear

How to Lend an Empathetic Ear

It clearly goes without saying that we are living in challenging times. Everyone is doing the best they can, finding ways to cope and adjust to this so-called “new normal.” But it’s important to remember this:  it’s okay to not be okay. Things are hard, they are different, and everyone processes those hardships and changes in unique ways.

One way to cope with a difficult or stressful situation is to speak with someone, to be heard and seen. A listening and non-judgmental ear is often comforting and can be a resource of support without focusing on “fixing” the problem. At Nemours Children’s Health System, we offer the Peer Support Program, which provides confidential, free support to all our associates. By being paired with a peer supporter, the person seeking support can speak with a fellow associate, who understands their work-life, and may relate to what they are going through or where they are coming from. The supporter offers a listening ear, helps the associate cope with the stressor, and can connect them to additional resources if needed.  

Could you “lend an ear” and be a source of support for someone in your circle? The first step? The ability to listen!

Being an empathetic listener – what it does, and doesn’t, mean

To truly succeed in supporting that friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker who needs and wants to be heard, remember that your primary goal is to listen. You are not expected, nor should you necessarily offer, to solve the problem. A key strategy to providing excellent support is to focus on offering empathy and compassion, not sympathy. What is the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion? See below for an example within the social media world.

Sympathy (pity) – is distant. On Facebook someone posts about a sad event that they have experienced. You comment with your shared sorrow (“thoughts and prayers”). While it’s meaningful and certainly heartfelt, it is done at arm’s length.

Empathy – is closer. Continuing with the Facebook example, you choose to be vulnerable by reaching out directly via a private message or text, recognizing and acknowledging their sorrow in a more one-on-one manner.

Compassion – is “where the good stuff happens.” You take action by calling, sending a gift, or stopping by. With compassion you are saying “I hear you and see you and want to give my time to be here for you.”

Empathetic listening is taking action by “stepping in.” Here are some ways to do that successfully

  • Acknowledge what the person seeking support is saying. This is commonly referred to as reflective listening, which is letting someone know you hear what they are saying by summarizing or reflecting their emotions back to them. For example: “I hear that you are feeling so overwhelmed with your diagnosis, having to schedule so many medical appointments, and miss work to attend them as well. This must be so difficult for you at this time.”
  • Help them explore their feelings with open-ended questions such as, “How did you react when you got the news?” or “Tell me how it felt to experience that situation.”
  • Name their feelings. “I imagine you are worried about losing your job” or “You must have been so scared when you first got the news.”
  • Normalize their feelings. “It is totally understandable for you to feel that way.” or “In this situation, feeling sad is totally normal.”
  • Be vulnerable yourself. Be careful here. It’s okay to relate with, “I’ve felt that way too.” But don’t turn it into a conversation about you and your experiences; unless, of course, they ask you to share.
  • Be prepared for something shocking. It’s possible they may open up and say or share something you weren’t expecting at all. It’s perfectly fine to respond with “I honestly don’t know what to say, but I’m so glad you shared that with me.”
  • Follow up. It’s possible your friend or family member just needed that one time to talk, and that’s okay. You can find out with a simple follow up text or call. “How can I help?” or “Please let me know if you’d like to talk again. I’m always here for you.” This opens the door, but doesn’t force anything on them other than your compassion.

You don’t need formal training to do this! It isn’t therapy and shouldn’t be treated that way. Being an empathetic listener isn’t problem-solving. Giving someone the gift of being seen and heard is a comfort and can lead the way to other sources of support for those in need. Try it out with those around you and see what a difference you can make in their day!

Holly Antal, Ph.D., ABPP

About Holly Antal, Ph.D., ABPP

Holly Antal, Ph.D., ABPP, is a clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Nemours Children's Hospital and Program Director, Nemours Peer Support Program.