Review: Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding by William R. Miller

In case you are unaware of William Miller’s background, he is the innovator behind Motivational Interviewing. Listening well – the practice, not just the title of the book – is at the heartListeningWellEmpathicUnderstandingCoverArt of this approach. In turn, the practice of listening well is based on empathic understanding. Miller is explicit in invoking the work of Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) Rogers was one of the founders of humanistic psychology, and Rogers’s person-centered psychotherapy provides the foundation for this results-oriented intervention.

Miller has written and concise and powerful contribution, which will benefit any reader committed to taking her or his listening up a couple of levels from where the reader is at now.

What persuaded me that Miller has got the right approach to listening well – the right juju, if I may use that term of art – is his simple and powerful training method (which coincidently aligns with Roger’s empathy training). Eliminate, drive out, or (at least) manage “roadblocks” to listening and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. To repeat: Drive out shaming, judging, moralizing, directing, warning, advising, persuading, agreeing, (this list is not complete), and listening expands and become powerfully possible and present.

Miller is not saying these practices (such as judging and moralizing) are wrong. But they get in the way. Instead of listening to the other person, one is listening to one’s judgment or moral assessment. This does not expand listening. It constrains it. This does not provide access to the other’s experience or improve the accuracy of the listener’s capturing of the other’s experience.

Miller’s method is compelling and simple. Drive out shame (and so on) – and listening (and empathy) expand. That’s really the art of listening well in a nutshell. All the rest is the hard work – practice, struggle, trial and error – to get it just right.

Human beings are judgment machines, and we seemingly can’t stop it. But we need to distinguish our judgments (and so on) to be with the other person. The exercises are to expand one’s empathy are simple and compelling, building from an elementary interaction that one can perform with almost anyone to something more challenging that one might explore with someone with whom one has a relationship of trust.

As background, the prospective reader of this book may usefully know that peer-reviewed, evidence-based scientific publications – which are not discussed in this text – indicate that problem drinkers consume less alcohol when they are giving a good listening regardless of guidance about alcohol. One study divided problems drinkers into three groups who were provided with (1) motivational interviewing (listening well); (2) confrontational methods that emphasize the bad health effect of drinking; (3) lectures on nutrition (as a control).[1] Everyone got better!

However, after six months one correlation stood out. Those who were subjected to confrontational methods drank more. Trying to force an outcome may work in the short term, but, in the long term, people get worse results. The upshot? If one begins with any approach other than listening, one is headed for trouble.

A caricature of listening exists that is often attributed to Rogers. It suggests giving back to the other person the person’s words more-or-less verbatim. If the person says, “I feel sad,” then the response is “You feel sad.” Miller shows how to give back to the person her or his own experience in a reflection that delivers the other person’s experience without sounding like a parrot.

While there is nothing wrong as such with using the speaker’s own words – especially if they are especially elegant or (as in this case) simple, one will further the conversation with a reflection on the part of the listener that says the same thing is a different way. Even if the reflection is a paraphrase that is not completely accurate, rarely does the speaker hold it against the listener. “You have been struggling with something …” “You have low energy.” “Things have not been going well.”

Even if the listener has to guess at the meaning, the speaker will generally not hold it against the listener. The speaker provides further context, background, detail, or context to enable the listener to improve the accuracy of the listening. Further clarification is required and more background detail will be forthcoming, driving the relatedness forward.

Miller makes the point that accurate empathy is on the critical path in relating. The power of a reflective response is precisely in that the speaker knows immediately if the (the listener’s) empathy is valid, incomplete, totally off, or at least on the right path. The listener can immediately correct and refine or clarify detail in a process of iteration.

Though Miller does not discuss fiction, the idea of empathy without the other person’s getting a chance to assess and provide feedback may make sense in literary fiction where there is no other person but only the response of a “generalized other” or an engaging but curious specimen of humanity, marching to the beat of a different drummer. But in an actual person-to-person encounter, the [reflective] response of the other person is indispensable. Nor does it have to amount to agreement. A productive disagreement can improve the accuracy of one’s listening. The point is that the other has a response that is included in the next iteration of the reflection (where “reflection” is the paraphrase or response of the listener to the speaker).

In conclusion, Miller’s is a short book. Admirably concise. My short review is that, as the author of three books on empathy, this is the book that I wish I had written. It contains the distilled wisdom of Miller’s several decades of practicing listening as the royal road to expanding empathy. Listening Well is a “how to” book, but the author is adamant that such a skill lives and flourishes in the context of a commitment to being empathic. (I hasten to add that, though Miller’s is the book I wish I had written, my own publications on empathy are significant contributions, and I urge the reader to get them on the short list, too.)

Being with the other person without judgments, labels, categories, diagnoses, evaluations, and so on, is what empathy is about most authentically. It is not that such assessments do not occur. They do, but they almost always get in the way. Listening Well is way too short to be a textbook, but I can see it as being useful in a workshop, seminar, or as exercises in a class. Two thumbs up!


[1] Miller and Baca, (1983), Correlation Between Counselor Empathy and Client Drinking at Follow Up, Behavior Therapy 14: 441 – 448; see also S. K. Valle, (1981), Interpersonal functioning of alcoholism counselors and treatment outcomes [Counselor’s Interpersonal Skill (Rogers) and Client’s Drinking Rates], Journal of Studies on Alcohol 42: 783 – 790.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD



Categories: Empathy, empathy training, empathy trends, Validation

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