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

In the preface of William R. Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding, Dr Miller writes that empathy is more than “just feeling with or for someone. It is the ability to perceive and communicate, accurately and sensitively.” This statement inform the tone of the book, detailing the specifics of active empathy and techniques for how to achieve and maintain reciprocal relationships through effective communication. Listening Well is about “instead of assuming that you know the meaning of what you think you heard, [developing] a more accurate understanding [to] prevent miscommunication. Empathic understanding can help to deepen personal relationships, alleviate conflict, communicate across differences, and promote positive change.” 

The significance of this book for autistic people is in the very acknowledgement that empathic listening skills do not come naturally to anyone. Neurotypical or neurodiverse, we are all in the same position. Dr Miller really tries to demystify the subject in a slim and easily written 103 pages, packing in all the latest findings from his long clinical career as a psychologist with exercises, diagrams and bullet points that keep the text from growing stale. Each chapter is anchored by a particular aspect of having a meaningful conversation – from asking questions, to reflecting, to closing a conversation with affirming the speaker.

Dr Miller also tackles “roadblocks” to empathic listening, and other potential barriers to making the other person feel heard. Throughout the book, it is emphasised that it’s not that any of these barriers are necessarily “wrong”, but that in the majority of cases, they will be inappropriate to the context. The cases in which it might be appropriate to, say, interrupt someone to tell them what to do, is not a subject for this primer.  Dr Miller also helpfully (certainly for us autistics) takes the time to explain the likely consequences of taking these techniques too literally: ask questions to establish the facts, but ask too many questions and the person you are listening to will feel like they are being interrogated. 

The language is simple and direct: there is little technical jargon and Dr Miller distills complicated concepts in an accessible way. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that all of the examples given assume a 1-2-1 setting and do not consider how these strategies might be applied in a small group. Although the empathy and compassion of the author shines through the text, it might have been worth exploring how these techniques would work in a non-controlled environment such as a party. However, the utility of this book in understanding the basics of meeting someone and having them walk away feeling like they were truly heard cannot be underestimated, and this is a solid contribution to Dr Miller’s legacy to his field. 

Dr. William R. Miller is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, with over forty years of experience in teaching empathic understanding. His many books include Lovingkindness, Quantum Change, Motivational Interviewing, and Portals: Two Lives Intertwined by Adoption.

You can buy Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding on Amazon UK here.