Getting the Backstory…and Healing: Part 1 – Empathetic Listening.

Adults with divorced parents can have lots of unanswered questions. I’ve found ACD are often reluctant to ask them due to various fears. However, here’s a tool than can help.

I teach many of my clients how to listen empathetically. Empathetic listening helps us engage with someone by listening to understand them instead of listening to judge or defend ourselves. During disagreements, our default is to listen so we can gather evidence to build our case why the other person is wrong.

Listening empathetically is crucial when we’re trying to understand a difference of opinion or offense. Empathetic listening, done right, can open doors to backstory that helps us understand where the person is coming from. This, in turn can explain why they believe, respond, or act the way they do. n

This type of listening doesn’t justify, minimize, or condone what we’re hearing, but can help us depersonalize the offence. When it’s not filtered as a personal attack, we tend to be more open to listening to understand the other person.n

How to listen empathetically

  1. Give the individual your undivided attention
  2. Focus on understanding feelings, not just the facts
  3. Watch for nonverbal cues to feelings
  4. Confirm you are listening with eye contact, nodding your head, and/or short acknowledging statements – “that sounds scary. That must have been so exciting.
  5. Avoid having judgmental thoughts
  6. Avoid interrupting—particularly with “yeah, buts…”
  7. Ask clarifying questions to increase understanding of their perspective/views/emotions (not questions to justify your view)
  8. Restate/rephrase what you heard to confirm you heard what they were trying to say.
  9. Allow silence for reflection
  10. Be willing to delay sharing your view for another time, if necessary.1

How does this help get backstory?

The beauty of empathetic listening is it creates an emotionally safe environment to share. Emotionally safe environments bring down walls and defensiveness because there’s nothing to protect against. Consequently, we can talk about our feelings, history, hurts, and hopes without fear of retribution. Once learned, it’s life giving to couples.

Here are a couple of examples:

A non-empathetic conversation

Sarah: You promised not to have more than one drink tonight.
John: I only had three drinks and you know I can handle my alcohol. Why are you always trying to control me?!

An empathetic conversation

Sarah: You promised not to have more than one drink tonight.
John: I can see you’re really upset by this. I know your mother drank, but it didn’t seem that bad to me. Is this tied to that?
Sarah: ….yes.
John: Please share with me why?

Then John listens without interrupting or judging as Sarah tells how her mother would promise to have one drink, but have more. John was shocked with the embarrassing things teenage Sarah saw her mother do after the first drink.

With some backstory, his defensiveness changes to understanding.

John now thinks, “Sarah’s not trying to control me. She’s scared to death of reliving her past embarrassments.”

John says, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” n

Ideally a subsequent conversation will address why John feels “controlled” by Sarah’s request. Sarah may be surprised when she hears John’s backstory.

It takes practice, but I’ve seen this method break down walls many times.

James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. We tend to be slow to listen and quick to speak. I encourage you try this method of listening. You too may be shocked, and changed, by what you hear.

In part 2 we’ll look at how this can impact adults with divorced parents. n

Also, feel free to email me at with questions or how this worked or didn’t.

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  1. source unknown.