Hearing vs. Listening

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

“Empathy is a choice and it is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

- Brené Brown


Are we truly listening, or we simply hearing? Empathy is what makes the different between the two. Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling and to share in their experience. It is what allows us to support each other in a way that is genuine and real. Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sadness we have for someone else’s misfortune. It puts us outside of their experience. The core difference between the two concepts is that one creates emotional intimacy whereas the other separates the listener from the speaker. With sympathy there is no true sharing. Meanwhile, empathy is making ourselves vulnerable to emotion in order to share an experience with someone else. As Brené Brown explains, “empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” Brené Brown is an American research professor and MSW whose research centres on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.



In a 1996 Journal of Advanced Nursing paper, Theresa Wiseman, who is a clinical professor of applied health research, defines four traits of empathy:


1) Seeing the world as others see it

2) Understanding another’s feelings

3) Remaining non-judgmental

4) Communicating this understanding


These steps are what creates that connection, what promotes the building of emotional intimacy. Seeing the world as others see it is essentially taking on their perspective. It means to put yourself in someone’s shoes and see what makes they view the world a certain way or feel things a certain way. Understanding another’s feelings means identifying what emotions they are experiencing and connecting to that thing within ourselves that knows that emotion. Remaining non-judgmental is important, as it is what allows us to be supportive, compassionate and create a safe and open conversation. Communicating this understanding means letting the other person know we have understood their emotions and are seeing them through their lens.


When we incorporate these features into our communication style, we are truly listening. We are absorbing what is being shared with us and we are in turn feeling it with the speaker, analyzing it based on our own experiences and sharing back something that is meaningful. We so often fall into the habit of listening just to wait for our turn to talk. Empathy counters this.


Another skill that goes hand in hand with truly listening is active listening. Active listening gets us to a place where we can provide an empathic response. It gets us to a place where we have a deep enough understanding of what the person is experiencing that we can relate to what they are going through. Active listening is more than the type of listening we do on a regular basis; it is deeper and creates more connection.


Features of active listening:


· Remaining non-judgmental

· Taking silences to truly listen, and not simply waiting for our turn to talk

· Verbal and non-verbal cues to show we are listening

· Asking open-ended questions

· Reflecting back what is said to us

· Asking for clarification and paraphrasing what is said to us

· Summarizing what is said to us


When we use active listening, our aim is to gain information, create connection and build trust. By using these techniques we can accomplish just that. It is important to get out of the habit of multi tasking in our heads as so many of us do. We live such stressful and active lives it can be difficult to turn this off but it does not put us in a place to truly connect with someone. For example, do not check your phone while someone is opening up to you. Many of us are guilty of this habit so often!


Empathy and active listening promote a true connection between two people. Both parties are sharing information, experiences and emotions and they find themselves in the same viewpoint. This is how we truly share, how we connect on the basis of human experience and how we experience feelings with someone else. Truly listening instead of just hearing is extremely rewarding. It will foster deeper relationships, give you a better understanding of any situation you are in and make you a more effective communicator. Like anything else, it is a skill! Don’t be afraid to start practicing.

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