“The first duty of love is to listen.” Paul Tillich

Imagine that you are in your workplace feeling enthusiastic, and ready to share some ideas at a staff meeting. Your supervisor, however, repeatedly shuts you down every time you want to express yourself. Afterwards you approach a colleague and say, “Can you believe how he ran that meeting? He didn’t care what anyone had to say. And the way he treated me? I’m quitting this place!”

Consider what might be your internal reaction to responses from your friend such as:

“You should sit down and talk with him. The two of you really need to clear things up, and I think you should initiate the conversation.”

“With that attitude you’ll be fired before you can quit, and let me tell you, in this economy you won’t find it easy to get a new job.”

“It sounds to me like you have issues with authority.”

Listening Skills = Life Air

One way we can begin to think about “understanding” is to compare it to the idea of “life air.” If you get the wind knocked out of you, all you want is air. At that time money, a great meal, or anything else, won’t matter. Similarly, especially when we’re emotionally charged, sometimes all we want is to be understood, and at such times great advice, an astute analysis, or even praise won’t satisfy.

Most people can relate to the statement that in some environments a conversation is defined as a vocal competition where whoever is holding their breath is called the listener. This contrasts with a culture of genuine dialogue, where we express what we want to convey, after receiving confirmation that the other person feels 100% understood by us. Studies have shown that in labor-management negotiations, when one party reflects back what the other party expressed, before saying their part, conflicts are resolved twice as quick. By cultivating excellence in listening skills not only can we avoid uncomfortable experiences in the workplace, we can also increase productivity and profit. We can see incredible benefits in all of our interpersonal relationships as well.

Research has shown that listening skills are the most important set of skills in business management. This is not surprising, if we consider that “serving the customer” means empathy. In order to truly serve a customer, a client, or a close friend or family member, we must actually understand that person’s inspirations, fears, and needs.

Listening Skills Toolbox

A very practical tool for your listening skills toolbox is reflective listening, which often is an effective means to convey empathy and genuine caring. The term “reflective” indicates that we’re playing the role of a mirror. Just as I see my physical self better with the help of a mirror, if you mirror what you understood I said and the feeling behind it, you facilitate my process of understanding myself- spiritually, emotionally, cognitively.

Especially in emotionally charged situations, a first response of reflection can serve to diffuse hostilities, and prevent us from irritating roadblocks to communication.

Visiting again the office scenario described above, those responses of advice, warning and analysis, even if well-intended, for me would be unsatisfying. So would other roadblocks to communication, such as argument, reassurance, criticism and diversion. We understand of course that such modes of communication do not always block, though in many situations they might be barriers to high-level relating.

An example of an empathically reflective response to the above scenario would be:

“You felt really insulted because of how he treated you during the meeting. I hear your anger toward the supervisor. You are so frustrated that you want to leave this place.”

Consider how such an understanding response would feel if you received it.

Hands-On Exercises

As a practical listening skills exercise, I invite you to think of an actual scenario in your life where you’ve been roadblocked, and an example of an empathic response you would have liked to hear in that situation.

Here’s another listening skills exercise: For a few days observe how frequently you use empathic understanding in your communication style. Then, without being inauthentic or preoccupied with the effort, increase your use of reflective listening. Notice the impact of your use of empathy on others and on the communication process.

Satvatove Institute provides a variety of listening skills trainings to support you in mastering highly effective relationship strategies.

Dr. David Wolf is an internationally renowned listening skills facilitator and has been featured as a listening skills expert on media outlets throughout North America, including Fox News and CNN News.


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