Do You Have the 3 Essential Qualities of the “Listening Spirit”?

Published: Feb 26, 2018
Modified: May 27, 2020


One of the dangers people are likely to run into when improving their listening is becoming so focused on the skills involved that their listening becomes rather mechanical. Important as these skills are, their effectiveness depends on something deeper.

Psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized that respect, empathy, and genuineness are three “core conditions” that undergird quality listening. We think of this combination of facilitative qualities as the “listening spirit.” This is the foundation on which effective listening rests.

Today, sixty-some years after Rogers published his findings, it is firmly established that this triumvirate of characteristics greatly enhances listening. Respect is the foundation. Empathy demonstrates caring and informs connections with the speaker. Genuineness is being your true self, interacting without pretense.

Listeners who show respect for others and who are empathic and authentic in their dealings with them are much more effective in their listening than those who are deficient in these qualities. Of course, what you want to strive for is using proven listening skills while relating respectfully, empathically, and genuinely. Here, we describe these core qualities that undergird effective listening—and virtually all other forms of constructive interaction.


Many people think respect is a feeling of deep admiration for someone for their commendable abilities, qualities, and/or achievements. That’s not what we mean by it. As we use the term, respect does not need to be earned by good conduct: It’s the way human beings ought to be treated. Respect does not mean you should necessarily like or agree with the other person. It means taking the other person’s point of view seriously, realizing that each person has her own wisdom.

Listener respect involves interacting considerately with the speaker regardless of your personal feelings about the individual or the content of his message. It offers the speaker the courtesy of listening without interrupting. It is being open to his idea, which requires holding your own ideas lightly. It sometimes is wondering about what lies behind that “smart enough person’s” thinking. Even in highly emotional conversations, the respectful listener hears the other person out.


Many people think empathy and sympathy are fairly similar responses to another person’s discomfort or hardship. However, it is important to recognize that the two words have very dissimilar meanings.

Empathy is a term that stems from the Greek word empatheia, which means “feeling into.” With empathy, you accurately take in the facts and feelings the other person is experiencing and reflect them back to the person. Empathy is facilitative; it supports and strengthens the other person. It promotes clearer thinking. And it aids problem solving, whereas sympathy tends to be problem prolonging.

Sympathy is feeling compassion or sorrow for the hardship another person is feeling. When you sympathize, you may have regret for his difficulty, but that’s about it. Sympathy keeps the sympathizer in her own shoes and keeps the other person’s problems at a distance. And sympathy places the sympathizer in a superior position to the other person.

Empathy is something we’re born with; it is embedded in our being. We possess it in varying degrees, however, and each of us can further develop it. Improving one’s listening skills enhances one’s empathy significantly.


When a listener’s respect and empathy are supported by genuineness, the listening spirit is powerfully present in a conversation.

We all have a general sense of what genuineness means—being natural, open, and honest with others. It is presenting yourself as you really are—not as you think you should act. It is being “dependably real” in that what you say and do closely matches what you think and feel. This quality of genuineness is sometimes encapsulated in the phrase, “What you see is what you get.”

Important as they are, respect and empathy are shallow attributes unless they are undergirded by genuineness. It’s the three qualities together—integrated—that constitute the listening spirit.

Adapted, with permission of the publisher, from Listen Up or Lose Out: How to Avoid Miscommunication, Improve Relationships, and Get More Done Faster, by Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton. Copyright 2018, Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton. Published by AMACOM.

About The Author

Robert Bolton, PhD, and Dorothy Grover Bolton, EdM, are the authors of Listen Up or Lose Out: How to Avoid Miscommunication, Improve Relationships, and Get More Done Faster (AMACOM, 2018). They are co-founders of Ridge Associates, a training and consulting firm that serves many Fortune 500 companies. Together, they also are the authors of People Styles at Work…and Beyond.