Compassion When Listening and Responding

Let’s face it. We’ve all done it so no use pretending we haven’t…

We’ve listened with the intent to respond and not with the intent to hear.

It’s understandable. Some people are annoying and hard to listen to. Some seem to want us to listen forever and never get to their point. Some ask for help or advice and never really expect to act upon the information they claim to want. Some seem to want us to change our views to match theirs, whether or not they even know what our views are.

Regardless, all people have a need to feel heard by another human being.

When you are that other human being, here are some things you need to do to make sure you are really hearing that person. I don’t get it right all the time, but I do know that when I do manage to listen and respond compassionately, I come away feeling better about myself.

1.We need to stop our bodies, whatever we are doing, and turn to the other so we are either directly facing, or as close to directly facing them as we can be. We need to stop our feet and plant them firmly.

2. We need to stop thinking about what information we have to impart: All counter arguments, all research we’ve read, all our beliefs about the situation.

3. We need to stop thinking about the groceries, work, dinner, the argument we had that morning… yada, yada, yada.

4. We need to rest our eyes on the eyes of the person who is speaking to us. They might not be able to make eye-contact with us, then we just softly rest our eyes in that general vicinity. If they do make eye-contact, we hold it – softly.

5. We consider our compassionate, genuine and short responses…


A. We hear the emotion and respond.

Not with some fake, “I understand you feel…. blah, blah, blah…” But with things like, That’s awful, Damn how annoying, How devastating, and so on.  If it was happening to you, what would you feel? That is the key to our initial emotion based response and we need to stay in that emotional space if we are truly going to hear them in a compassionate way.

B. We meet them where they are.

It doesn’t matter how much knowledge and wisdom we have, if the other person isn’t ready to hear it and especially if they haven’t asked for it, us sharing that is a waste of air space.  If she thinks he’s an arsehole for dumping her, respond to her there. He may well have been. She may have been at fault, too, but right now she can’t self-reflect. Trying to make her is just going to annoy her and possibly have you rejected as a friend or confidant. I’m guessing, if you really care, you don’t want to be pushed away.

C. We follow their lead in the conversation.

People tend to talk themselves deeper into the same hole or out of their hole. If they are talking themselves into the same hole, you’re going to eventually end up feeling drained and fed-up. This becomes your time to make a call: Can you sustain this level of giving; or, can you feel the will to live escaping with every word that falls from their lips? Once you get to the losing the will’ to live stage’, even before – if you can see it coming and you know you’re not up to it – a compassionate and polite escape really is okay. You can’t help them at this time and you can’t give to anyone when you’re drained.

If they start talking themselves out of the hole and aren’t just covering the same information again, follow them with your responses. Let them lead the conversation. Hear them. Hear the emotion behind their words. Acknowledge each step and stage with phrases like, You could be right, It seems that way, That makes sense to me, and so forth. Eventually, they’ll hit self-realisation…. “I really shouldn’t have put my tongue down that other guy’s throat.  Maybe he’s not a jerk for breaking up with me; maybe I was the jerk.”  We don’t remind them about that guy or point out any times we’ve seen them behave badly.

Compassionate listening is about hearing the other, not about our opinions.


D. We leave the solution to them. More often than not, people are quite capable of finding their own ways of dealing with their problems. We ask them what their plans are. We acknowledge the worth in their ideas. (We might well learn a new way of doing things in the process.) We follow their emotional changes in the conversation, as they become less despondent and more excited, by saying things like, great idea, go you, or a simple, yes.

E. If we are asked for advice, we don’t hammer them with hours of diatribe or a history lesson. We hear their real question…. We break it down to the smallest possible step forward….. We provide a solution to that very small step forward. …And we do so in a way that reminds them it’s their decision, always.  “Do you think a phone call to apologise might help?”  “Have you treated yourself to a long bath or a long walk, lately?”  Same if they ask for information… small amounts at a time is more manageable for someone who is emotionally raw. Sometimes, sharing a story from our own lives can be helpful but be cautious with these: Compassion means we are aware of their emotional state and  ability to hear us, and are willing and able to adapt to their pace and needs.

Sometimes, at those times of great emotional distress, words are not appropriate or even compassionate. At those times: a hug, a hand held, warm non-intrusive eye-contact, or simply sitting close to the other person is compassionate listening.

After all, compassion is about our hearts seeing, feeling, hearing and beating with others’.


This post was first published 19th February, 2015 on my personal blog: Living Without Drama.

Karyn Wills
Karyn Wills

Karyn Wills is a divorced mum with three sons who are 16, 12, and 8 years-old respectively. She works at her ideal job in the Waldorf school which her boys attend.