Seven Ways of Destroying Empathic Listening

Do you use empathic listening with others? Do your partner, friends, or family use it with you? In reality, there are many hindrances to this type of communication and we're not always aware of them.
Seven Ways of Destroying Empathic Listening
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 February, 2023

Among the most basic needs of the human being, there are two that stand out: to be heard and to be understood. In fact, your relationships would be more meaningful, sincere, and transcendent if you took care of these two elements in your daily communications. Moreover, if you were able to always apply active listening, your brain would develop a more compassionate and less selfish approach.

This psychological craft is grounded in childhood, in the way caregivers address their children. Shaping a respectful interaction in which children feel that their words are important, appreciated, and taken into account, builds better psychosocial development in them. On the other hand, ignoring, criticizing, or underestimating the way in which they communicate isolates them and builds a worse self-concept.

There’s another phenomenon that often appears in the difficult mechanism of effective communication. It’s one that you might not even notice. It concerns the fact that you might perceive yourself as an effective and empathic listener when, in reality, you’re not. That’s because there are certain dynamics that hinder and weaken this ability. They’re unconscious enemies that you need to know about.

“When people talk, listen completely… Most people never listen.”

-Ernest Hemingway-

Pesky friend talking to another about how we destroy empathic listening
Sometimes, in an attempt to help and solve someone’s problem, we end up stopping listening empathetically.

Ways of destroying empathic communication

Alfred Adler, Austrian psychiatrist and founder of individual psychology, used to say that one skill we should all develop is to look with the other’s eyes, listen with the other’s ears, and feel with the other’s heart. This metaphor describes the essence of empathy. However, it’s not particularly easy to pay attention to the other person and remove yourself completely from the equation.

Indeed, value judgments are frequently intertwined when you communicate with others. You might realize this when you’re explaining how you feel to someone, and they’re really quick to give you advice on what you should do. But, empathic listening doesn’t mean judging or advising. It means connecting with whoever we’re faced with and treating them with respect.

Research conducted by Louisiana State University (USA) states that active and empathic listening is a valuable social skill that we should all develop. Therefore, it’s interesting to discover how we tend to hinder this practice in our daily conversations.

1. Reassurance, a way of blocking the other’s experience

“Calm down, it’s nothing.” “Stop worrying so much, it’ll soon pass”. Why shouldn’t it be okay to try and make the other person feel calmer and more relaxed? Surely, nothing can be better than telling someone who’s suffering or worried that everything will be fine?

In reality, when you seek to alleviate or erase the other’s feelings of discomfort, you destroy empathic listening. In effect, you block their emotional experiences. For instance, if you tell someone the classic “it’s nothing”, you’re underestimating what they feel at that particular moment.

2. Interrogation and indirect questioning

“But, why do you feel like that? Why do you think this has happened to you? Are you sure it’s true?”. Often, when sharing an experience with someone close, the conversation can quickly turn into a KGB interrogation. An excess of questions by someone who should be listening gives the other person the feeling that they’re being questioned.

On the other hand, listening empathically requires paying respectful and silent attention, without questioning the other’s experiences.

Authentic empathic listening is like shaping an auditory mirror so that the other person can reflect back while communicating.

3. Giving advice

In your relationships with others, it’s common to encounter figures who indoctrinate and are quick to give unsolicited advice and guidelines. Empathic communication doesn’t offer advice, it involves comprehensive listening in which no one imposes their points of view on another.

4. Analyzing and probing

There are many ways in which empathic listening can be destroyed. One of them involves the desire to carry out emotional forensics. It’s another way of scrutinizing, shredding, and violating what the other person feels.

In fact, searching for the reason and the trigger for their experiences with cold intellectualism is another way of blocking their experiences.

5. Changing the subject, a painful form of invalidation

Have you ever tried to reveal or share with someone a fact, a feeling, or a thought and found that they changed the subject at that exact moment? Moreover, they changed the subject to one involving themselves, leaving you feeling like you weren’t even worthy of comment.

This is a highly painful way of destroying empathic listening.

6. Imposed empathy

“Really? Oh, I’m so sorry, how awful!” When it comes to connecting emotionally with someone, some people use their own interpretation to imply that they understand. However, in reality, it’s not like that. Indeed, their attitudes are fake. You usually detect this immediately, but it still makes you feel uncomfortable and even hurt.

7. Closing expressions

Closing expressions are expressions that minimize and hinder the emotional experience of a speaker. In your conversations and even in your attempt to be empathic, you might fall into the trap of making fatal errors that deny the other the opportunity to continue being honest.

“At least you have a job/ your children”, “At least, A, B, or C didn’t happen to you”, or “Don’t worry, at least you can continue with X, Y, or Z”. These types of expressions disconnect the individual from their reality by imposing on them the idea that what they’re expressing isn’t as significant as they believe.

Knowing how to communicate through empathic listening provides us with psychological oxygen. If we fail to apply this competence effectively, discrepancies and discomfort will arise.

Adult daughter talking to her mother about how we destroy empathic listening
Empathic listening requires validating what the other person expresses and also what they’re feeling while communicating.

Final note

You’re probably really aware of how certain people address you. But, do you know how you communicate? As a matter of fact, it’s quite common to be unaware that we don’t always carry out the necessary reflection and introspection when communicating. Indeed, there are many ways of destroying empathic listening and it’s easy to adopt them unconsciously.

When listening to others, you mustn’t judge them or feel the need to solve their problems. You should lower the volume of your ego and the desire to turn the conversation toward yourself. Wisdom means knowing how to listen. Taking care of each other implies understanding that it’s sometimes necessary to stop listening to yourself and discover who’s standing in front of you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Floyd, Kory. (2014). Empathic Listening as an Expression of Interpersonal Affection. International Journal of Listening. 28. 1-12. 10.1080/10904018.2014.861293.
  • Gearhart, Christopher & Bodie, Graham. (2011). Active-Empathic Listening as a General Social Skill: Evidence from Bivariate and Canonical Correlations. Communication Reports. 24. 86-98. 10.1080/08934215.2011.610731.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.