Listening is a fundamental and deceptively complicated component of talk therapy that has received very little specific research attention. The work of Carl Rogers and others promotes the importance of empathic listening to create safety and process client experiences, and several models identify its importance in processing and regulating client emotions (especially in couple therapy, where empathic listening can disrupt rigid conflict cycles and model coregulation skills). Much of the dysregulation and resistance we see in therapy may be related to a perceived lack of safety caused by persistent conflict or previous trauma, explained by the unconscious processes of the autonomic nervous system and polyvagal theory. Polyvagal research also supports the relationship between empathic listening and emotional safety: demonstration of genuine interest, care, acceptance, and validation are perceived as evidence of safety that encourage emotional connection. These behaviors are accessible to novice therapists who are still learning specific models and interventions. This study seeks to illustrate this relationship by conducting a task analysis on empathic listening behaviors by therapists in training in a therapy-as-usual environment. Observation of emotional inquiries in therapy leading to increased perceptions of safety demonstrate that empathic listening requires a sustained balancing of safety-promoting and exploratory behaviors. Therapist directiveness, possibly rooted in anxiety, was a common observation across segments where client safety was not achieved. Our observations also highlight the importance of therapist attunement, or neuroception, to determine whether to use safety-promoting behaviors or exploratory questioning. It is my hope that this research can lend illustration and clarity to the theoretical underpinnings of empathic listening to guide therapist interventions and training.



College and Department

Family, Home, and Social Sciences; Family Life



Date Submitted


Document Type





empathic listening, task analysis, couple therapy, polyvagal theory, therapist training