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Listen with Empathy

Illustration of two young people. One holds and points toward a large lightbulb.

You may have heard that empathy involves “walking in someone else’s shoes.” But this tidy metaphor misses a crucial aspect of empathetic behavior: close, compassionate listening. Brené Brown addresses the missing component in her book Atlas of the Heart:

Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.

To show empathy, then, we must learn to listen carefully, understand what was said, and withhold judgment. The last point can prove difficult, even discomforting, when our own experience does not jibe with the speaker’s.

Even so, empathetic listening is necessary if we are to understand others and see the world from a diversity of perspectives. Is that not also what we want for our students?

How can I teach empathetic listening?

Too often students (and, to a greater extent, adults) listen with the intent of replying rather than understanding. We all need to do a better job of compassionate listening.

The In Focus SEL program provides this lesson plan to help you teach empathetic listening.

Download the "Do You Mean?" activity.

Empathetic listening also involves understanding and responding to a speaker's nonverbal cues. Try these two minilessons to help your students see emotions in body language and facial expressions.

Seeing Emotion in Facial Expressions

Often, we express our emotions less through what we say and more through how we look. Facial expressions are very important for expressing emotions. Note the many different emotions you can see in the facial expressions in this activity.

Seeing Emotions in Body Language

Sometimes we try to hide our emotions, but our bodies make them obvious. Body language is very important for showing what someone may be feeling. What emotions can you and your students detect in the body language in these images?

Tool Box

Get extra support for teaching social-emotional learning.

Teacher Support:

Click to find out more about this resource.

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.