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Active Listening

An active listening approach and conveying empathy can help calm the child or young person, it can help them feel understood.
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Empathy is about understanding another person’s situation from their point of view. It is often described as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and it is about hearing what’s going on for them. You don’t need to have experienced what someone else is going through to be empathetic, but you do really need to listen to their experience. Empathy is not about what you may think or feel about someone’s situation, but its more about them. So sympathy on the other hand is more about your own feelings, you might feel sorry for someone else’s situation or share their emotions that they are feeling.
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It can sometimes be expressed as care or concern for someone, but the risk here is that sympathy can be more about managing your own feelings than understanding theirs. To show empathy, the first thing you need to do is try to understand what is happening for someone from their point of view. This can be hard, but just showing that you are trying to understand can make a huge difference. Try not to judge. When we pass judgment on what is being said, it can make it much harder to really hear or understand from their perspective. Avoid making assumptions about their experiences, thoughts or feelings. In doing this you might miss something really important.
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Take the time to really listen to understand what they are going through, and, finally, recognise the emotion in the other person so that you can communicate this. When I meet someone in crisis, I will often reflect back what they are saying bearing in mind their situation. This can be as simple as saying, “that sounds really difficult because…” This shows that I have listened to what they have told me, I understand why they are struggling, and it keeps the focus on them rather than making it about me. Empathy can help to develop a sense of connection which can be so important following a crisis when someone may feel isolated or alone.
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Trying to understand can be more valuable than saying or doing the right thing, as it can really help with these feelings. Being sympathetic however can be more about making someone feel better, or trying to cheer someone up, which can create more of a sense of dis-connection. Telling someone that they will feel better soon, or sharing when something similar has happened to you, might make you feel like you have helped, but it could make the other person feel as if you don’t want to hear what they are going through. Both empathy and sympathy are important parts of communication and teamwork, no matter what your role is in the British Red Cross is.
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Empathy and sympathy are key for supporting people in crisis.

An active listening approach and conveying empathy can help calm the child or young person, it can help them feel understood and allow them to express their emotions honestly so that you can find out their needs and assist them appropriately.

In the British Red Cross video they discuss empathy, which is an important part of active listening. Once you have watched the video, consider how this can be applied when talking to those you support.

When talking to a child or young person, the following may be helpful:

• Seek information about the situation so you know how to help. Reassure them that that they do not need to re-tell their story in detail unless they say they want to. Pay attention to tone of voice, body language, and establishing good eye contact

• Listen carefully to what people say and clarify your understanding by repeating back or summarising what you hear they are trying to communicate.

• Demonstrate you are listening using nods, murmurs or encouragers such as ‘oh?’ or ‘OK’ or ‘I understand’ – respond without judging

• Be sensitive and focused, good communication with a distressed child does not require probing into their experience. Accept and support emotions

• Use language that is simple, direct and easy to understand, speak slowly and calmly; try not to use euphemisms; offer hope, have patience, and leave gaps for them to start speaking

• Exercise patience if people are confused or find it difficult to explain. Tell them it is OK if they do not want to talk or tell their story; be respectful and compassionate

• Meet the family with trust

Helpful phrases you could use in your conversations

Reflecting their concerns and experiences

• “I understand your feelings and lots of people are feeling similarly to you about what’s happened / the situation …”

• “It is very natural to be sad, angry, upset or ….”

• “I hear what you are saying, about having to …”

Explore concerns

Explore what the child or young person is particularly worried about and what their specific concerns are.

• “Tell me a bit about what worries you.”

• “Is there anything else that worries you?”

• “I sense that there is something more on your mind…”

Normalise and name reactions

• “In this situation, how you are feeling and how you want to react is very natural…”

• (to parent) “Many parents would be finding this situation difficult, but you have managed to look after your family so far and are able to ask for help when you need it.”

Explore solutions

• “It can be overwhelming, so maybe we can talk about how to help you manage those difficult feelings.”

• “Maybe we can discuss possible ways around this/solutions…”

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Psychological First Aid: Supporting Children and Young People

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