Listening with empathy, the cornerstone of effective communication, is a skill that requires not only hearing words but also staying present in the moment. However, staying present can be challenging, especially when our own emotions are triggered during a conversation. This could be because something is going on for us and we need to be heard? Or, at the highest level of challenge, we are triggered because the other person is verbally attacking.

Handling these situations involves a set of skills that can be learned, and, as with any skill, requires practice to master. Here are three skills that can help and some tips on how to practice and build those skills.

Skill 1: Bringing Your Attention Back

Very few of us have the ability to stay 100% present over an extended period of time. If someone is talking to you, about anything at all, your attention will come and go. You may have had situations where you have completely switched off and only realise there is someone in front of you when they stop and wait for you to respond – except you have no idea what they were talking about for the last minutes.

Staying present when triggered is not about suppressing your emotions or ignoring your feelings; it’s about acknowledging them and choosing to respond mindfully. Here are some strategies to help you bring your attention back when you feel triggered:

a. Mindful Breathing: Take a few deep breaths to anchor yourself in the present moment. Focusing on your breath can help calm your racing thoughts and emotions, allowing you to return to the conversation with greater clarity.

b. Self-Awareness: Recognize when you’re triggered. Pay attention to physical sensations, like a tightening in your chest or a knot in your stomach. Identifying these signs can help you pause and address your own emotions before reacting.

c. Empathic Listening: Engage in empathic listening by guessing their feelings and needs. This not only demonstrates your commitment to the conversation but also keeps you focused on them rather than your internal reactions.

d. Mindful Acceptance: Accept that triggers are a natural part of human interaction. Instead of resisting or judging your emotional response, practice self-compassion and remind yourself that it’s okay to feel this way.

e. ‘Not About Me’: tell yourself ‘this is about them, not about me’ as a way to keep the boundaries clear and choose where to put your attention.

Skill 2: Creating moments of Self Empathy

Sometimes, staying present means recognizing that you need a moment to connect with yourself. Asking for space is a skill that can be vital in emotionally charged conversations:

a. Honest Communication: Be open and honest with the person you’re talking to. If you feel triggered, kindly express that you need a moment to process your thoughts and emotions. Most people will appreciate your honesty and willingness to engage constructively.

b. Set Boundaries: It’s essential to set clear boundaries when asking for space. Let the other person know when you intend to return to the conversation so they don’t feel dismissed or ignored.

c. Use “I” Statements: Frame your need for space using “I” statements to avoid blame or defensiveness. For example, say, “I need a few minutes to gather my thoughts” rather than “You’re making me so upset that I can’t talk right now.”

Skill 3: Signalling

This is about when I am the one who wants to be heard. How can I make it as easy as possible for the other person to stay focused and give me their attention? You will find plenty of great tips above such as using ‘I’ statements and reminding yourself ‘It is about me!’. In addition the skill of signalling is about making it clear that you want empathic listening and to check with the other person if this is a good time and place and that they are emotionally ready to hear you.

Say something like, ‘I have something bothering me and I really want to be heard. It might be tough for you to hear me, so I want to make sure you are fully available just to listen’.


Staying present when listening to someone is a skill that can enhance our personal and professional relationships. It allows for deeper understanding, empathy, and connection. However, it becomes especially challenging when we are triggered by the conversation or our own emotions. By employing strategies like bringing our attention back and asking for space, we can become more adept at staying present even in difficult moments.

Remember that staying present is not about ignoring your emotions but rather acknowledging them and choosing how to respond. It’s a practice that requires patience and self-awareness. By mastering these skills, we can foster more meaningful and empathetic communication, strengthening our bonds with others and contributing to a more connected world.



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