9 things empathetic listeners do that average conversationalists fail to do

Disclosure: this page may contain affiliate links to select partners. We receive a commission should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on them. Read our affiliate disclosure.

In every conversation, there’s a time to talk and a time to listen.

It’s a fine balance to achieve, and many of us get it wrong.

Empathetic listeners, however, get it right, and what’s more, they listen with genuine empathy and understanding.

So how do they possess this remarkable ability?

Here are 10 things empathetic listeners do that the average conversationalist fails to notice.

1. They are active listeners.

Listening is listening, right?


Average conversationalists are often only listening passively.

They are hearing, sure, but they’re not 100% paying attention.

Their mind is elsewhere thinking about a conversation they had earlier, or what to cook for dinner.

Or they may be more blatantly distracted, checking their phone or watching the TV whilst their friend or partner speaks.

Don’t beat yourself up if this sounds familiar, we all do it from time to time. We’re busy and preoccupied with our lives and passive listening takes little effort.

Active listening, on the other hand, requires a bit of work.

Empathetic listeners seem to do it intuitively, but it can be learned.

So, if you want to up your conversational game, try active listening: maintain eye contact, throw in the occasional nod, and murmur, ‘Mmm-hmm’ every now and then.

Oh, and actually pay attention to what your friend is saying.

2. They notice body language.

Empathetic listeners know that the body says as much, and sometimes more, than the words being spoken.

They pick up on subtle non-verbal cues that average conversationalists miss (either because they’re only passively listening, or because they are too busy talking themselves).

And crucially, they correctly identify the meaning and emotion behind these non-verbal signals.

This allows them to spot when words may not be truly conveying a person’s feelings, either because they are having trouble expressing themselves verbally, or because they are trying to put on a front.

Being attuned in this way lets them connect with their friends and loved ones, and creates a safe space for open communication.

It’s worth noting that some people find it inherently hard to read expressions and body language, particularly when there is a discrepancy between these non-verbal signals and the words being spoken.

This isn’t for lack of paying attention, but it still causes disconnect and upset in conversations.

For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, verbalizing, and clarifying unclear signals or discrepancies between facial expressions, body language, and speech is a good place to start.

Over time and with support, individuals can learn to recognize and interpret these non-verbal cues more accurately.  

3. They validate.

Read any article about empathy or being empathetic, and validation will come up.

Empathetic listeners know that acknowledging and allowing others to feel what they feel is key to creating meaningful conversations and connections.

It’s easier said than done though.

Through well-meaning intentions, we automatically jump into problem-solving mode when our friend or loved one talks about their negative emotions or experiences.

After all, no one wants to see someone they care about hurting.

So we tell them: ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t feel like that’ or ‘Don’t be silly, that’s not true.’

And they hear: ‘Your feelings are wrong. You are wrong for feeling them.’

Empathetic listeners, however, say: ‘Oh gosh, I would feel the same’ or ‘Oh you poor thing, I can imagine how awful that felt.’

And their friend hears: ‘Your feelings are valid. It’s ok to feel them.’

Ironically, jumping straight into problem-solving mode usually makes the problem worse.

Whereas validating without trying to solve the problem can often be enough to elevate your friend or loved one out of the negative feelings they are experiencing.

4. They don’t assume.

It can be hard not to jump the gun and interpret other’s words based on our own preconceived beliefs and experiences.

We’ve only got limited space in our brains, and so we often skip ahead a few steps before we even realize we’ve done it.

Like when we interrupt a friend to finish their sentence for them, only to realize they are saying something completely different.


Empathetic listeners, however, seem to have internalized that old saying: to assume is to make an ass out of u and me.

It may come more naturally to them, but we can all learn to do it.

By asking curious, open-ended questions rather than loaded ones, withholding personal judgment about what they are saying, and genuinely trying to understand their perspective rather than rushing to guess and vocalize it, we can have much more open and empathetic communication.

5. They mirror.

Empathetic listeners have an amazing knack for mirroring their confidante’s body language, facial expression, and even tone of voice.

It doesn’t seem to be a conscious choice. They sense and feel the emotion and so it naturally reflects in them.

This mirroring, in turn, shows solidarity towards their friend or partner and their feelings and encourages open and honest communication.  

Average conversationalists sometimes fail to notice that their body language or facial expressions are actually in contrast to their friend’s or loved one’s.

This can come across as judgment and cause a disconnect.

This one can be a hard habit to change (particularly if you’re afflicted with a resting b*tch face or perpetually have your arms crossed because you’re cold), but if you want to encourage more meaningful dialogue, it’s an important skill to master.

So try and observe the expressions, body language, and tone of voice of your conversational partners.

But more importantly, observe your own.

After all, scowling at someone with your arms folded and body pointing in the opposite direction rarely conveys, ‘I’m here for you’.

6. They reflect.

A similar skill to mirroring that empathetic listeners often utilize is reflection.

Reflection can be used to show validation and to demonstrate active listening.

Whereas mirroring usually involves the face and body, reflection involves verbally showing you have heard, understood, and empathized with the speaker’s feelings and experiences.

An empathetic listener might paraphrase or summarize their friend, co-worker, or partner’s sentiments saying something like, ‘Wow, it sounds like that experience was really terrifying for you’ or ‘Gosh, it sounds like you’re feeling really worried about that.’

To the average conversationalist, it might seem unnatural or even a little patronizing.

But if you want to create more connection and understanding in your conversations, give it a go.

You’ll be surprised at how affirming and validating it is, and how it creates a space of trust for your friend or loved one to open up without fear of dismissal or rejection.  

And if you find it hard to read people’s emotions, it can also be used to check you’ve understood the situation correctly.

7. They don’t interrupt.

We’ve all been there. Our friend is talking, it reminds us of something similar that happened to us.

The desire to interrupt and tell them is real, strong, and very hard to resist.

But resist we must if we want to upgrade from average conversationalist to empathetic listener.

That’s not to say you can’t speak at all. In fact, it’s key to empathetic listening to speak to show you have understood and can relate.

But it’s all about timing. 

If your friend or partner is reaching the pinnacle of their story and you chime in with your even worse/better/bigger/crazier experience, they are going to feel dismissed, and you will be labeled an annoying story topper.

Or if you interrupt them every other minute to tell them totally unrelated things that pop into your head, they are going to shut down (and will probably start to wonder why they bother talking to you in the first place).

If you choose your moments wisely though, you can get what you want to say across whilst showing that you relate and empathize.

Empathetic listeners can naturally sense the lulls in a conversation and use these as their opportunity to validate, reflect, and connect.

And the rest of us just need to exercise a bit more patience.

8. They don’t judge.

There is nothing that shuts down open conversation quite like judgment or criticism.

When you express yourself, you are essentially exposing your thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.

And there is always the risk that others will disagree or disapprove of them.

When someone listens without showing judgment, it validates that what you feel and believe is ok, and it fosters further open and honest communication.

This skill that empathetic listeners adopt can be a hard one to master, because of course, we all have our own views that often don’t align with those of others.

Some people find it so hard to hear differing views, that they will simply avoid engaging with people who have conflicting opinions and beliefs to their own.

This doesn’t solve the problem though; it just avoids it.

And in the long run, it only makes it harder to practice this skill as you end up in an echo chamber, only ever conversing with people who agree with you.

So utilize opportunities to speak to people from different backgrounds or who you know think differently from you. Let them speak (and make sure you actually listen) rather than interjecting with your opinion or critique.

It will help you when it comes to navigating conversational differences with your loved ones, and who knows, you may learn something interesting in the process.

9. They show empathy and compassion.

I’m sure it comes as no great surprise that empathetic listeners show…empathy.

Empathy comes more naturally to some, and these people can easily sense and feel the emotions and suffering of others.

For empathetic listeners, the skills outlined in this article come almost without thinking.

They instinctively know how to listen and respond in ways that convey validation and connection.

That’s not to say average conversationalists are emotionless robots, but they may not always intuitively understand and relate to the feelings of their conversational partner.

And even if they do, they may struggle to demonstrate it.

Like all things that don’t come naturally though, practice is key, and the ideas in this article are a great place to start.

About The Author

Anna worked as a clinical researcher for 10 years, authoring and publishing scientific papers in world leading journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, before joining A Conscious Rethink in 2023. Her writing passions now center around personality, neurodiversity and relationships, always underpinned by scientific research and lived experience.