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Listening with the Heart

by Vivienne Silver-Leigh(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 69 - October 2001

Did you get lessons in listening at school? No, nor did I. Teachers expected us to listen to them, to the facts they told us about the subjects on the school curriculum. We learned very basic listening, writing down notes on what we heard, or what teachers wanted us to remember. But as adults we need listening skills for different purposes, to understand and develop our relationships, and we also like being listened to with warmth and empathy. But no one teaches us these skills.

So we struggle along somehow, although in fact there are classes in active listening if you look around. My first counselling training gave me an introduction to this subject, where I learned that a truly empathic listener uses certain techniques, aiming to be aware of what the person talking to you is really feeling deep inside. Techniques plus a warm attitude can go a long way towards developing true empathy.

Listening at a deep level means listening with the heart as well as applying techniques. Think about the person who has really listened to you recently. What they did was to understand your feelings, to make you feel accepted, and they did not judge you. I remember the first time someone did that for me – a lovely young aunt, a warm and accepting person, listened to me when I was 17, pouring out my adolescent miseries. She listened from her own inner sense of caring, really hearing beyond my words, and she did not laugh at me or criticize me. Now, many years later, I remain grateful for that accepting relationship.

Students on introductory counselling skills courses practise active listening, usually in role plays – being a therapist, listening to a client, hopefully developing the three qualities which Carl Rogers, the great American Psychologist of Humanistic Psychology, considered essential in any therapeutic relationship: unconditional acceptance, being genuine, and empathy. Rogers' research evidence showed that when these three conditions are offered in therapy, and are perceived by the client, the client "finds himself painfully but definitely learning and growing".[1] The therapist modelling these three qualities is giving the client a chance to develop them too.

Counselling students sometimes failed their practical exams because they could not stop giving advice, rather than listening deeply to clients in role play. According to Mearns and Thorne, "What is required is listening which hears the person rather than the content."[2]

One of the skills needed to develop empathy is that of reflection, saying carefully what you think the other person has tried to convey to you, picking out the feelings behind the words, not merely parroting them back again.

Many people in this country have been taught that it is wrong to be too emotional, or to express their feelings, that rationality is better. I often hear from clients about their families who never showed affection or encouraged emotion in their childhood, and in particular the fathers and sons who were not able to express their feelings. Academic achievement and worldly success were valued above feelings. Rational words and self-analysis flow from such clients in torrents, almost overwhelmingly, and to help myself listen empathically in a session, I need to remember that there is deep unspoken pain and yearning for understanding behind all the words.

'Emotional literacy' is the term given by Claude Steiner to the ability to understand your own and other people's emotions.[3] To become emotionally literate you need to:

1. Know your own feelings. If you learn to listen to yourself, to what goes on inside you, you gradually find that your feelings become clearer, less vague. Intuition can develop from listening to your own inner feelings. Practising meditation and relaxation is helpful,giving you calm space in which to begin to recognize your feelings, and to reconnect with them;

2. Have a sense of empathy. Empathy means feeling what other people are feeling. Some people seem psychic, because they understand you immediately. This creates warmth and closeness; you feel understood and accepted as you are, without conditions.

Below are the three sentences that might be said in response to someone talking, and which illustrate where empathy stands on a continuum from apathy to sympathy:

"Empathy is walking with another person into the deeper chambers of his self – while maintaining some separateness. "…Empathy is a kind of detached involvement with the feeling world of another person…"[4] It is different from sympathy, which is about wanting to do something helpful for someone in need.

Children's feelings need acknowledging even if you do not approve of them. If a child says, "I'm afraid of the dark", and gets the reply, "Don't be silly", that is ignoring his/her real feelings. If you find yourself continually shouting, nagging or not getting a response from children, it might be helpful to change your approach, and try listening with empathy, for example, "I know you don't want to get up and go to school, but I am worried that you are going to be late and get into trouble", thus expressing your own emotions and accepting theirs.

We are happier when our relationships work well, and this contributes to good health. Of course creating new patterns of behaviour takes determination and practice, and becoming a listening parent or an empathic friend is not an overnight job. Starting with the loving intention to really hear the feelings of someone talking, not just the words they say, combined with some idea of the skills it takes to do this, all of us can become empathic listeners, if we choose to do so.


1. Rogers Carl. On Becoming a Person. Constable. 1967.
2. Mearns Dave and Thorne Brian. Person Centred Therapy Today. Sage Publications. 2000.
3. Steiner Claude with Perry Paul. Achieving Emotional Literacy. Bloomsbury Publishing. 1997.
4. Bolton Robert. People Skills. Prentice Hall. 1986.


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About Vivienne Silver-Leigh

Vivienne Silver-Leigh had a career first as a speech therapist, and then became a lecturer in English and counselling. She trained counsellors for five years, and now has a private practice, working as a psychotherapist, from a humanistic/integrative perspective. Following a strong interest in spirituality, she learned yoga and various forms of breathwork and meditation. She can be contacted on e-mail:


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