Listen Up: What Stops Us from Active Listening and How to Cultivate Empathy in Communication

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

December 26, 2023

How many times did you find yourself in a conversation in which each person was captured in their own thread? How many times have you left a conversation only to notice you knew nothing new about the person you were talking to? Do you think the other felt the same? What strange dynamics could be at play here?

Sadly, we suffer from a crisis of active listening in our Western society. It seems many people have lost the ability to tune in to what others are saying. Moreover, I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve witnessed conversations in which people seem to have one goal and one goal only: to magnify themselves. No matter what the other truly says, the pursuit of gratification commences and the tunnel vision engulfs what could be a beautiful act of connection. There’s a quote I came across recently that could beautifully sum this up:

“We become addicted to the reactions of others and suffer withdrawal symptoms when we fail to score”

In this article, we’ll explore what active listening is and what its not-so-secret ingredient is. We’ll also look at some typical ways in which active listening is hindered – some of those might surprise you.

What is active listening?

According to NHS England, active listening is an intentional effort that aims at keeping our assumptions out of the conversation whilst keeping a level of genuine interest and curiosity in the person you are listening to. Because it’s intentional, it requires concentration, and it will lead to a greater understanding of the other’s thoughts, needs and feelings. 

Active, intentional listening is a skill based on one paramount condition: in order to take in the other, we need to get out of ourselves. If you’re busy focusing on scoring points, you’re unlikely to have the openness to turn your gaze towards the other person.

Empathy, the hot sauce of active listening

Another sad observation is that we live in an age over-saturated with the word empathy. Everyone claims to demonstrate it, or at the very least aspire towards it. In reality, experience has shown me that “empathy” is often used as a buzzword to mask avoiding healthy confrontations and disagreements. In my client work, there is often a piece addressing the necessity of expressing anger and protecting boundaries in a normal, grounded way. 

The unwanted consequence of this avoidance is that empathy has become bereft of its meaning and depth. Make no mistake, developing empathy, genuine empathy, is essential to be able to listen better. So why is empathy the hot sauce of active listening?

A little goes a long way

Similar to how a little hot sauce can add a burst of flavour to a dish, empathy can enhance the quality of a conversation. Just a dash of empathy can change the entire dynamic, making the interaction more meaningful and satisfying. It’s the key ingredient that can take a disconnected conversation and turn it into something extraordinary, much like how a well-seasoned meal can leave a lasting impression on our taste buds.

We may need to build our tolerance to it over time

If you don’t know how hot a sauce is going to be, you wouldn’t add a big, fat dollop of it on your plate, would you? You start small and build up. Same with empathy! It’s something that takes more than one attempt to develop, but with time and practice it becomes a natural part of our communication.

We instantly feel when a conversation doesn’t have it even though we can’t put our finger on it

It leaves a strange taste in your mouth. That is what a conversation without the empathy hot sauce can be like. On the other hand, when empathy is present in a conversation, it’s like a burst of flavour that lingers in our memory. We instantly feel the difference, even though we might not be able to articulate it. It makes the interaction more engaging, memorable, and rewarding.

It can bring tears to our eyes

Empathy, just like hot sauce, can bring tears to our eyes. Experiencing the depths of its flavour can sometimes be overwhelming, especially at the beginning. Moreover, not everyone is ready to receive empathy, and that might lead to tearful disappointment. But when empathy is present, it can turn a simple conversation into something extraordinary.

A potential way of setting ourselves in the intention of practising empathy is asking ourselves “How could I truly discover the thoughts, feelings and needs behind what this person is saying? And how could I respond?” The longer we abstain from our interpretation of the event and keep asking the other about it, the more likely we are to be able to empathise.

What gets in the way?

The answer is simple, but hard. We get in our own way by being absorbed by our own thoughts, feelings and assumptions. We let that take control, even in an unconscious way, and we cease being truly open. What are some common attitudes we can employ that prevent us from listening?


Self-deception is characterised by difficulty in imagining that one is contributing to a dynamic because it would be difficult to look at the impact of one’s behaviour on others. One deep down fantasizes that the other will realise how wrong they are and therefore they’ll stop the “irritating” behaviour. There’s no realistic scrutiny of one’s own behaviour. 

For example, I could complain that my partner is dogmatic, stubborn and unwilling to listen to other ideas, without noticing that I constantly contradict everything my partner is trying to say.


Fear of criticism can bring us to a place where we cannot stand to hear anything we might perceive as negative or disagreeable. The urge to defend ourselves becomes so powerful, that we shut down any form of curiosity around whether there is some truth in the other’s point of view. What we end up doing is arguing, finding explanations and excuses, to the irritation of others. 

For example, my manager could give me a genuine suggestion for improvement regarding the way I organise a presentation. Because I perceive that to be a criticism of my person, I immediately give an overly elaborate explanation of why I organised the presentation like that. I don’t stop and try to reality-check the suggestion my manager made.

Help compulsion

It can be very difficult to just sit with someone’s potentially painful story. That usually happens when we neglect to address our inner pain. Because their ache can become our ache, thus unleashing a chain reaction of difficult emotions, we compulsively jump in with seemingly helpful, well-intended suggestions to “make things better”. 

An example would be when a friend tells us about a genuinely icky work situation that our friend can do little about. If we don’t realise that our friend’s pain and our pain are separate emotional landscapes, it can become hard to tolerate the helplessness. When we are aware of our own sores, we understand that sometimes people going through a difficult time only need to be listened to.

Listening is a muscle

Empathy and active listening can be trained and practised, just like any other muscle in the body. Start small and persevere – you’ll see the results quicker than you think. 

A tip I always give to clients struggling with active listening is to start asking open-ended questions, the “Wh-” questions (who, what, where, when, why, which, whose etc.). Not only does that give you more information, but it also gives you some time to ground yourself if you’re nervous. 

Remember, you’re trying to ascertain the feelings and beliefs behind the event, particularly if you can’t relate to that experience. If that fails, simply asking what the other person needs can be a beautiful sample of empathetic communication.

You're invited

Ultimately, willingness to listen comes from a balanced emotional core. In my work with clients, I focus on specific examples of their resistance to listening. I also model patient and respectful listening so that we can reach the essential internal messages that keep them turned inward.

I would love to discuss more about how this work can benefit your communication. Get in touch to arrange a free consultation call. Make 2024 the year of genuine empathy.