Compassionate Listening

What is it?

Compassionate listening is an excellent skill for providing support to people in distress. All that is required for this intervention is a compassionate listener and a person in distress. If used effectively and in a timely manner, it can provide relief and prevent a sufferer’s mental health problems from aggravating. However, if the symptoms of mental illness have become too severe, it is necessary for the sufferer to seek professional help.

As discussed in the emotional health section, talking is one of the most effective ways of practicing emotional hygiene. If we don’t talk about our problems, we are burdening our consciousness. By enabling a sufferer to talk about their problems, we help them to:

  • Bring their emotional traumas from the subconscious to the conscious.
  • Reflect upon them and come to terms with them.
  • Prevent them from continuing to have a negative effect on their consciousness.

When practicing compassionate listening, it is imperative for the listener to show these qualities and abilities:

  • Attentive listening
  • Compassion
  • Empathy

Attentive Listening

This involves the listener giving their full and undivided attention to the speaker, without interrupting them or offering advice.

Today numerous devices such as our mobile phones serve as distractions that prevent us from interacting effectively with the people around us. It is very difficult for people to open up about their problems and the slightest hint of disinterest from their confidant may prevent them from doing so. This is why letting go of any distractions (putting your mobile phones etc. away, stopping any other work) is the first step of compassionate listening.

When someone comes to discuss their problems with us, often we start telling them what we think they should do. The goal of compassionate listening is not to give the sufferer a solution, but to help them find a solution for their problems themselves. Often people know subconsciously how to solve their issues. All they require is someone to discuss the problem with, so they can bring the solution from the subconscious to the conscious. If the sufferer asks for advice directly, it can be helpful to ask leading questions and only offer advice if we have fully understood the situation and feel we can offer useful feedback. If we offer advice that proves to be detrimental to the sufferer, not only will it affect the sufferer negatively but also adversely affect our relationship with them.


To feel compassion means to feel with and have the desire to alleviate the suffering of someone in distress. It is possible to feel compassion for not just human beings but also for other forms of life. Self-compassion is an important aspect without which compassion would be incomplete. It is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.

Compassion calls for unconditional positive regard and a non-judgemental attitude towards the sufferer. Unconditional positive regard means affording the sufferer respect, regardless of who the sufferer is or what they may have done. Having a non-judgemental attitude entails keeping our preconceived notions of morality aside and not basing our opinion of the sufferer on the standards of behaviour set by society or ourselves. It is unadvisable to criticize the sufferer, since this may prevent them from opening up.

It is also necessary that we don’t play down the importance of the sufferer’s problems by minimizing what they are feeling, even if what they experience may seem trivial to us. Compassion calls for realizing that each individual experiences things differently and, no matter how small the problem, all suffering is valid.

Feeling compassion for the sufferer is essential if the listener is to practice compassionate listening effectively.


Empathy is the ability to understand what the other person may be experiencing or feeling. It requires a high degree of emotional intelligence and some experts suggest that people who are most empathetic are those who have undergone trials and tribulations themselves. Empathy is an active process and requires the listener to forget about their own issues and fully focus on the problems of the sufferer

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which involves feeling pity for the sufferer. Sympathy is a passive process and may result in looking down on the sufferer. Sympathy is dehumanizing and it is inadvisable to use it since it will distance the sufferer.

The listener can employ empathy in three ways:

  • Facial empathy is expressed by using the appropriate facial expressions in response to the person in distress. For example, if the sufferer is crying, it would be inappropriate to laugh, or if the sufferer is laughing, it would be inappropriate to cry etc. The response is to mirror the sufferer’s expression in an appropriate way.
  • Postural empathy involves using appropriate body language when facing the person in distress. The listener should be facing the sufferers and appear open and attentive towards them. It is advisable that the listener keeps all their gadgets and other distractions aside when interacting with the sufferer.
  • Cognitive empathy is the most difficult aspect and involves putting ourselves in the shoes of the sufferer to truly understand their experience and what they must be feeling because of it. Often we are so self-obsessed that we begin to think of our own problems when someone recounts their own. Cognitive empathy calls for stopping to think about ourselves and focusing on the sufferer.


In summary, here are a few guidelines, detailing the dos and don’ts of compassionate listening.

Dos for the listener:

  • Listen with undivided attention, this means not having your phone, TV or computer near you or thinking about other things while the person is speaking.
  • Speak only to help clarify the speaker’s thoughts, not to offer advice. It may be helpful to summarize what they have said, indicating that you have been listening.
  • Maintain appropriate posture and indicate that you are listening attentively through your body language.
  • Maintain eye contact and mirror the expressions of the speaker, but try to remain composed.
  • Put yourself in the sufferers shoes by trying to imagine what they are feeling and experiencing as if it were you. However, do not make it about you.

Donts for the listener:

  • Judge or criticize the speaker, as this will prevent them from opening up.
  • Minimize the speaker’s experience by saying other people go through worse things. Your intention may be to reassure the speaker, but remember that the aim of compassionate listening is to allow the speaker to vent.
  • Offer sympathy as the speaker may feel as if you are talking down to them.
  • Share your own experiences, because the aim of compassionate listening is to allow the speaker to vent.

For more information about how to help the speaker solve their problems, go to the section on problem solving.