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  • Writer's pictureSusan Taylor

Empathetic Listening

We hear a lot about active listening as a critical skill in business along with its many benefits like building trust, forging healthier relationships, and increasing productivity. In my experience, the act of listening is a solid skill to cultivate. And, if you really want to take your life, and your enterprise, to a whole new level, consider Empathetic Listening as your new superpower.

“Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’. Only the echoes of my mind…" - Harry Nilsson, 1969

Some of you have heard this song, and most of us are familiar with at least one of these quotes:

  • “We don’t learn from talking; we learn from listening.”

  • “The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT” …one of my favorites!

  • “We have two ears and one mouth."

And let’s not forget Stephen R. Covey’s most famous mention:

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

All of these — an indication to talk less and listen more. Most of us know how foundational listening is to our human interactions; yet we keep on talking…

Why do we find it so difficult to listen and what can we do about it?

Given our innate desire to be acknowledged—to be heard—is at the root of why we listen less than we talk. Add to that certain mindsets we hold about the need to be right, know the answer or have the solution—especially in business—and we have the perfect storm.

Our obstacle to listening is our preconceived notions and attachments we have to them. With these beliefs come hard, fast assumptions and expectations that build up our individual sense of projecting a need to get our ideas out there—through words; and if we don’t, somehow we’ll get lost or not be noticed. This is where something as simple as a small notepad can be incredibly freeing.

Over the course of more than 20 years, I’ve been in more meetings than I care to count where I observe nearly 100% of the time people “talking over”—verbally interrupting others or speaking over them in a loud tone. When a facilitator is present, he or she can point out these sorts of interruptions. But when you’re on your own, these interruptions often go unnoticed or unchallenged, leaving those who participated feeling tuned in or tuned out.

So how can you develop this superpower of Empathetic Listening?

Before we go there, we must understand the difference.

Empathetic Listening is the highest form of listening; it goes beyond active listening. The reason is because Empathetic Listening involves more than simply listening with your ears.

In the last podcast where I reviewed On Dialogue by David Bohm, I spoke about shared meaning as the “glue or cement that holds people and societies together.” And in attempting to reach a common understanding amongst a team or group of people, playing an active role in listening is most certainly required. Why? Because in Bohm’s view—and mine—it slows down the process of thought.

Playing an active role in listening is therefore critical. But if you want to get to the glue—that shared meaning that holds it all together—you need to learn how to listen empathetically. Empathetic Listening takes us beyond active listening because it involves listening from the eyes and the heart in addition to what you actively hear. In short—and in my view—Empathetic Listening is listening for meaning. And fully understanding from a place of meaning is one of the highest forms of connection we can make with another human being.

Why is this so important?

As often as you’ve read about the benefits of listening, you’ve probably also learned that empathy is not only one of the most important business skills, it is also the most overlooked. And as Peter Bregman points out in his story for Harvard Business Review, “it can turn a confrontational conversation into a collaborative one—allowing all parties to arrive at a shared truth.” This fosters connection. This fosters engagement. And with only 15% of employees engaged in their work worldwide, if you are a business owner, manager or CEO, you may want to pay some attention. Couple that with “63.3% of companies stating that retaining employees is actually harder than hiring them” [Gallup], and we have once again created the perfect storm.

So, keeping your employees happy with salary, benefits and the work environment you create should do the trick, right? Not necessarily. I much prefer the definition of “engagement” as set forth by Quantum Workplace:the strength of mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work”. And here is where the rubber meets the road. As in Dialogue, Empathetic Listening is about fully and deeply understanding another intellectually and emotionally. And this is what I feel David Bohm was driving at when he talked about everybody becoming “sensitive to all the nuances going around and not merely to what is happening in his [or her] own mind.”

There is a quality of listening that is required in Dialogue, and that is Empathetic Listening.

In his book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey states that in empathetic listening, “you listen with your ears, but you also and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior…you sense, you intuit, you feel.” This resonates with me. You first need to participate in the process of listening—active listening or what I prefer to call actively listening. Once you have developed that skill, you can move on to Empathetic Listening where through your ears, eyes and heart, you truly seek to understand the meaning that the other is trying to convey, getting inside that person’s frame of reference, seeing and feeling the world through his or her paradigm neutrally, with as little judgement as possible, in a way that does not project your experiences on to the other.

How do you cultivate Empathetic Listening? First through actively listening, expanding to more active self-awareness around sound and body language. Less than 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30% is represented by sound—and 60%—the largest percent of communication is represented by our body language. This is why Empathetic Listening is so powerful. Instead of projecting your own autobiography, assumptions, feelings, motives and interpretations, you honor the reality inside another person’s head, heart and gut. Through this, you are listening to more fully understand, being in deeper communion with one another.

You listen with an intention to learn. You listen until the other feels seen. You listen until the other feels understood. You listen for shared meaning.

How to practice Empathetic Listening

This all sounds good on paper, but how do I practice it?

According to Live Bold & Bloom [adaptation]:

  1. Take the time. The speaker needs to feel they have all the time in the world to share their emotions.

  2. Offer empathy, not sympathy—the difference being sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.

  3. Pay attention to body language. The speaker needs to know you are fully present.

  4. As much as you might want to jump in and save the day with the perfect solution, don’t do it. Just listen.

  5. Use open-ended questions—where answers require more than a “yes”, “no” or “maybe”.

  6. Ask for more. Even if you don’t suspect there’s more, there usually is; so, it’s always worth asking.

  7. Repeat a phrase or word that feels emotionally palpable.

  8. Allow for silence. Again…LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENCE.

  9. Stay calm. if you can’t listen calmly and practice Empathetic Listening, then delay the conversation until you can.

Empathic listening teaches you to be more caring, humane, and loving. With continued practice, you can become more attuned to listen to another person’s head, heart and gut in a way that opens a space to more fully understand the meaning another is trying to express, and in this be in deeper connection.

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