By Patty Laushman
Empathetic listening is an incredibly important skill, and it’s something that most people take for granted. It involves truly understanding another person’s point of view, rather than just hearing what they have to say.
Unfortunately, this can be a particularly challenging skill for autistic adults to develop. Let's take a closer look at empathetic listening and how it affects us.
What is Empathetic Listening?
Empathetic listening requires more than just hearing the words someone is saying; it involves actively engaging with them in order to understand their perspective and feelings. This means that the listener should be able to identify, reflect, and respond in a meaningful way.
It’s about making sure your response is relevant to the conversation at hand, rather than simply giving generic advice or responding with platitudes.
Empathetic listening is a fundamental communication skill that involves trying to understand another person’s point of view. It is the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and understand what they are feeling. When you are listening empathetically , you are not just hearing the words that the other person is saying, but you are also trying to understand their underlying emotions and experiences.
This requires you to develop your “theory of mind” as it’s called in psychology. This is the ability to attribute a mental state to ourselves and others. This includes more than just naming emotions – it includes beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge, and if you struggle with alexithymia, or the ability to interpret and name emotions, this skill is particularly challenging to develop.
It’s worth it, though! This type of listening can help to build trust, resolve conflict, and deepen relationships. If these are part of your goals, then improving your ability to listen empathetically is the quickest way to get there.
Is Empathetic Listening More Challenging For Autistic People?
According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), “The idea that autistic people lack empathy is a damaging stereotype that isn’t supported by research. Self-advocates have consistently said that we have different communication styles from others, not a lack of empathy.”
Empathetic listening is more challenging for autistic people, not because they don't have the capacity for empathy, but for other reasons, and those reasons can differ person-to-person.
One reason could be that autistic people are less likely to respond to neurotypical social expectations.
Another reason might be that, while many autistic children do develop emotional empathy, they don't go on to read more complex social cues, understand social rules and expectations, or act on those feelings and cues.
Autistic people do have empathy. However, due to different communication styles and a tendency to process social information differently, empathetic listening can be more challenging for them.
How to Improve Empathetic Listening Skills in Autistic Adults
Empathetic listening is the ability to listen attentively to another person's feelings without judgment or attempts at problem-solving. It requires understanding the speaker's perspective and responding in a way that shows you care about their experience. Here are some tips to follow to improve your empathetic listening skills.
Commit to Being an Empathetic Listener
The first step in improving empathic listening skills is committing yourself to being an empathetic listener by actively engaging with the speaker and showing genuine interest in what they have to say.
Make sure your body language conveys that you are paying attention, such as occasionally making eye contact and nodding your head when appropriate. By looking at them, their face, their eyes, and their body language, you can pick up clues to what they are thinking and feeling.
Avoid multitasking when someone is speaking so that your focus remains on them and their words.
Taking the time to practice active and empathetic listening can help you become better attuned to what people are really trying to communicate — even if it’s not explicitly stated out loud.
Limit Distractions Around You
You may find it difficult to focus on conversations if there are too many distractions present. It is important to remove any potential distractions such as phones, televisions, and other people when having a conversation with someone else.
This will help ensure that your focus remains on the conversation and will enhance your ability to listen empathically.
Develop Coping Mechanisms
Autistic adults often struggle with empathetic listening because they're overstimulated and overwhelmed by outside stimuli.
You can get around this by learning coping mechanisms such as deep breathing exercises to help you remain focused during conversations and reduce stress levels caused by overwhelming stimuli from those around you.
If you can’t pay attention due to environmental stimuli, see if you can either change the environment by reducing noise or light, or by moving the conversation to a different location. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m having trouble focusing on what you are saying, and I really want to. Can we…?” Then ask for what you need to pay better attention.
Demonstrate Interest With Body Language
Make sure you are facing the speaker with your entire body -- top, torso, and toes -- so that they know you are fully engaged with them. Other things you can do that demonstrate interest in what the speaker is saying include mirroring their body language.
If one of you is standing and the other seated, either match their posture or invite them to match yours. For example, you could say, “Do you want to sit and talk about this?”
You can also try matching their facial expressions. In neurotypical people, matching facial expressions causes mirror neurons in the brain to fire, which helps them understand what the other person is feeling. This is often not the case in autistic people, but matching the speaker's facial expression may cause them to feel you are in sync with them.
Another way to communicate interest with your body is leaning in just an inch or two toward the speaker. Not only does this tell them you are paying attention, research shows this may actually gives you a burst of energy that helps you actually pay closer attention. Experiment with this the next time you are bored in a conversation!
Consider Eye Contact
For many people, eye contact conveys interest in what the speaker is saying and helps build trust. That said, eye contact is very difficult for many autistic adults.
One of the challenges with eye contact is that processing two sensory channels simultaneously, visual and auditory, takes a lot of bandwidth. Many autistic people can actually pay better attention if they are not making eye contact, so forcing eye contact makes it even harder to listen empathetically!
Rather than focusing on making eye contact, try to think of it in terms of your goal. In order to listen empathetically, you need to collect information about the person’s emotions and intentions, and to truly do this well, you need access to more than their words. Looking at their eyes, their face, and their body language for clues enables you to have as much information as possible.
Another reason some autistic people struggle with eye contact is that it actually creates an overwhelming sense of discomfort or even pain. If this is you, don’t force it. If someone asks you to make eye contact, simply respond, “I’m actually able to listen better when I don’t make eye contact, and since I’m trying hard to listen to you, I need to look away.”
Try to Picture What the Speaker is Saying
Many times, autism can make it difficult for individuals to interpret subtleties in facial expressions or intonations, which can lead them down the wrong path while they attempt to understand someone else’s message.
In order to better comprehend what a speaker is saying, try picturing what they describe as if you were there experiencing it yourself so that you can understand more than just their words but also the emotions behind them.
Imagining yourself in that scene can trigger the emotions you would feel in that scenario, which helps you understand what the speaker is feeling.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Clarification
If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Asking questions will help you understand what the other person is trying to say and help build understanding between both parties.
Furthermore, it shows that you are engaged in the conversation and want to ensure that you have a clear understanding of the topic at hand.
If you think you know what the person said, but you’re not exactly sure, rephrasing back to them what you think they said ensures you get it right. You can say, “What I think you said is…” Then they can clarify or agree you understood what they were trying to say.
Use Clarifying Statements and Questions
Clarifying statements and questions are important tools for showing empathy, as they allow for further exploration into the thought process behind someone’s emotion or experience.
For example, asking, “Are you ok? How can I help you?” shows that you are trying to understand the other person’s feelings and provides them with an opportunity to open up about what is going on with them emotionally.
Speak Slowly and Deliberately When You Respond
Once you’ve done your best job of understanding what the speaker has said, take time before responding with your thoughts on the matter. Speak slowly and deliberately so that each word carries its own weight; this will help ensure that your response doesn’t come across as rushed or aggressive.
Use a Mirror to Practice Body Language and a Recorder to Practice Voice Tone
Body language and voice tone are integral parts of communication but can be difficult for autistic adults to pick up on during a conversation.
To practice these skills, use a mirror or recorder while having conversations with someone else so that you can pay attention to how your body language or voice tones come across during those conversations.
This will help increase your self-awareness of these aspects of communication, which can then be used during future conversations with others.
Practice Labeling Your Emotions
Being able to identify one's own emotions can also be challenging for autistic adults. I will write a blog post on alexithymia in the future, but in the meantime, the feeling wheel from The Gottman Institute can help you identify what you're feeling.
The inner wheel is comprised of six basic emotions that include mad, scared, joyful, powerful, peaceful, and sad. More complex emotions that may be underlying the primary emotions are listed in the second and third rings.
To practice this skill, when you experience an emotion, first try to identify the category to which it belongs. Pay attention to your body sensations because these will provide the best clues. Is your heart racing? You may be mad or scared. Do you sense overall heaviness? You're probably feeling sad. Do you feel energetic and are you sitting up straight? You're probably feeling something in the joyful or powerful category.
Once you have the category identified, look through the 12 more complex emotions in the same category. Do any of them resonate with you? Perhaps you are feeling more than one of them, such as ashamed AND stupid.
Where it gets even more complicated is when you are feeling two emotions from different categories. For example, if something negative happened at work, you might be feeling angry (Mad) about what happened, but also confused (Scared) about why it happened or what you could have done differently.
With practice, you will be able to interpret and understand your own emotions better, which will enable you to understand other people’s emotions.
Watch Movie Clips to Get an Idea of Empathetic Reactions
Watching movie clips can be a helpful way for autistic adults to get an idea of what empathetic reactions look like in different situations.
Seeing examples of different types of reactions can help you recognize various emotional cues and see how others respond to them.
Additionally, these stories can provide an opportunity for you to reflect on how you might react in similar situations.
Be Open to Feedback
Asking for feedback from others is a great way for autistic adults to gain insight into how their responses are being perceived by those around them.
Receiving regular feedback allows you to make adjustments in your communication style when necessary in order to create stronger connections with others through more effective empathetic communication. Just say, “I’m trying to listening empathetically here. Is this helpful?”
Remember That Empathetic Listening is a Teachable Skill
Empathetic listening is not just a skill for people who have autism -- all people can benefit from learning how to improve their empathic listening skills.
And although it may seem like empathic listening comes naturally to some people, it actually requires practice and repetition before it becomes second nature, even for neurotypicals!
Ask for Help Practicing Your Empathetic Communication Skills
Developing empathetic listening skills takes time and practice, so don't hesitate to ask people close to you like friends or family members if they can help you practice your skills during conversations.
Having someone you trust and who understands you watch over your interactions with others can help give you valuable perspective on how other people perceive your responses.
This is one area that a qualified autism life coach may be able to help with, so consider a short-term engagement with one to improve your skills.
Overall, empathetic listening is an incredibly important skill to work on — especially for those on the autism spectrum who want to foster meaningful relationships with others but may struggle due to difficulties interpreting social cues and body language.
However, with motivation, practice, and patience, anyone can improve their skills in this area, leading to deeper, more rewarding relationships.