Ensuring Patients are Heard through Empathetic Listening

By: Michelle Tu and Kristine Cecile Alarcon

Healing conversations are opportunities for providers and patients to cultivate an environment that builds trust and ensures that a patient has an equal say in their care. An integral part of healing conversations is listening. For Asian American (AA), Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (NH/PI) individuals, whose backgrounds might include the weight of intergenerational trauma or cultural expectations, the act of being truly heard can be cathartic. Listening can support alleviating mental health struggles as well as spark connection and understanding in and foster the patient-provider relationship.

There are two types of listening: dismissive listening and empathetic listening.

Dismissive listening, where one minimizes or ignores the speaker’s feelings and perspectives, can have the opposite effect on the patient-provider relationship, deepening the wounds of intergenerational trauma and cultural misunderstandings. This can further erode trust and perpetuate feelings of isolation and alienation. Sometimes individuals may not even realize they may be a dismissive listener.

On the other hand, empathetic listening — a practice that goes beyond simply hearing words — is at the core of any healing conversation. It involves fully immersing the listener in a speaker’s narrative, acknowledging their emotions, and validating their experiences. Through empathetic listening, a safe space can be created where vulnerability can thrive, allowing individuals to share their stories without fear of judgment.

Photo Courtesy of @Keeleyshawart. Empathetic Listening vs Dismissive Listening.

Here are some ways for providers to utilize empathetic listening in a patient-provider relationship:

  • Listen with an open mind and without judgment — The core of empathetic listening is to understand where the patient is coming from. By having an open mind and letting go of any judgments, the listener can understand the patient’s perspective.
  • When responding to the patient, use plain and simple language — Using everyday language can support a continuous dialogue between a patient and provider. It can help minimize anxiety and frustrations as the patient and provider can understand each other.
  • Use motivational interviewing techniques — In a motivational interviewing framework, empathetic listening can help facilitate deep, meaningful conversations and create a safe, non-judgemental space. More specifically, a 2020 review study focused on ethnically minoritized populations showed that culturally adapted motivational interviewing techniques tailored to patients’ norms, beliefs, values, language, and literacy skills can effectively enhance health-behavior change. This approach holds significant potential for addressing healthcare disparities and promoting better health outcomes among populations of diverse ethnic origin, highlighting the importance of personalized and culturally responsive interventions in healthcare settings.

Empathetic listening is a critical component of healing conversations. In these types of conversations, providers should provide a comfortable and safe environment for their patients. Providers can incorporate empathetic listening to create the foundation for trust-building in a patient-provider relationship.

Stay tuned for more information on healing conversations, empathetic listening, and trust-building in AA and NH/PI communities.

Special Thanks: Gabrielle Peñaranda, John Nguyen-Yap, Cara Skillingstead, and Vivian Nguyen



Unlocking Healing Conversations: Empathetic Listening and Trust in AA and NH/PI Mental Health Discussions

The Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations — dedicated to promoting advocacy, collaboration and leadership to improve AA and NHPI health.