By Zoe James-Collins, CFCC Student Fellow, Fall 2020
The ability to feel the emotional weight of another person is a powerful—and often overwhelming—sensation. Learning how to transcend empathy from sensation alone into a useful social tool is imperative to optimizing relationships both within and without the legal profession.
While many lawyers harbor a natural gift for speaking, empathy in practice urges the opposite: empathetic listening. Employing empathetic listening allows people to feel heard and encourages more holistic and meaningful perspective sharing—this is especially crucial when practicing law within a therapeutic jurisprudence framework, which relies on creating and maintaining emotionally supportive relationships and eliminating shame.
How can you practice empathetic listening?
- Maintain Eye Contact: Eye contact establishes your investment in hearing the other person’s perspective and prioritizes it above anything else in the room or in your mind. It communicates your interest in listening, rather than just hearing. In instances where eye contact may not be appropriate or achievable, instead employ the other pillars of empathetic listening bulleted below.
- Physical Affirmations: It is important to be aware of your body language during conversation. Open posture and nodding your head lets the speaker know you are interested and encourages them to continue speaking. Your physical stance can help the speaker feel more comfortable stating their point.
- Verbal Affirmations: When appropriate, rephrase what the speaker is saying wording it in a manner that reflects your understanding. Your statement of affirmation can begin with a statement such as, “So what I am hearing is _____.” A statement like this shifts the burden of any discrepancies to you and diminishes defensiveness from the speaker. Checking in as appropriate ensures that you are on the same page as the speaker and can understand better what the other person is saying.
- Avoid Assumptions: Making assumptions is a quick way to lose your client’s trust in your investment in their perspective. It can be dangerous to assume; instead, asking clarifying questions allows your client to assist in your understanding and assures them that their voice and their truth are important.
These skills may not feel natural at first because lawyers tend to be problem-solvers, and are inclined to want to dive head first into issues. The more often these patient practices are employed, though, the more instinctive they will become, and the more organic and fruitful your relationships will be.
Mind Tools, Empathetic Listening Going Beyond Active Listening, https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/EmpathicListening.htm (last visited Sept. 24, 2020).
3 thoughts on “The Practice of Empathy”
Zoe, this post is excellent! The practice of empathy is so important in our relationships with others, and it is unfortunately sometimes lost in the adversarial process. Thank you for providing meaningful examples and tips for how to practice empathetic listening. I especially think the last point, “Avoid Assumptions,” is an effective way to be an empathetic listener. Asking questions instead of making assumptions is critical in understanding the speaker’s perspective.
Zoe, your advice in this post is so refreshing and so important, especially to the legal profession, I think. I agree completely that, as lawyers, we tend to jump head first into a problem solving frame of mind which often causes clients to feel unheard or feel as though they are just the machine that delivers the facts of a legal problem. At the heart of our profession are clients who are real people, with real emotions, who are oftentimes dealing with a problem that has affected them in every aspect of their life. I think if clients felt that they were heard, seen, and validated through your empathic listening, it would make us far greater advocates for those we are trying to help. Thank you for this wonderful post!
Thank you for this insightful post on the importance of empathy in the legal profession. It is so important that those practicing law have all the tools necessary to fully represent their clients. Part of that is the ability to empathetically listen. I also love that you highlighted that the ability to empathetically listen does not always feel natural. However, I believe that it Is something that must be developed and confronted. Thank you.