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5 Ways Empathetic Listening Creates Stronger Leadership

By Mike Cameron. On Jan 26, 2019.

As a business leader, one of the greatest challenges I’ve had is communicating my vision with my team and gaining buy-in. But what if I didn’t have to do that at all? What if I could turn the tables on communication as I knew it?

I found I could actually attain a higher level of buy-in with listening rather than talking. It may seem counterintuitive, however, sometimes I am more effective in communicating my vision by listening rather than talking.

So what am I talking about? I am talking about “Empathetic Listening”.

What is empathetic listening?

Empathetic listening means listening to fully understand rather than listening to respond. Let’s have a look at the definition of the word empathy:

“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

This means when we are “listening” to our team we need to do so in the context of their feelings and not our own. We need to suspend judgement and potentially even suspend our own objectives in order to truly hear what someone is saying. It is about the practice of hearing through the emotional lens of another.

Why is this important?

Many leaders today only ‘listen’ to their team in order to gather fuel to defend his or her position. For me, when I was early in my leadership career the ascent was swift. I climbed the corporate ladder and eventually branched out on my own. I learned early to become a good listener. This allowed me to spot growth opportunities and respond appropriately based on what I had heard.

Once I started having some success however, it was easy to start feeling like I had to start providing more answers than questions. I had to remind myself to keep that listening mindset or risk losing the support of those around me.

I recently came across a quote which resonated with me.

“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” Andy Stanley

This can be the kiss of death to any organization. If your people stop talking, then apathy sets in. Apathy breeds disengagement and ultimately results in lost productivity. Employing the practice of empathetic listening will ensure your team feels valued and stays engaged.

Benefits of Empathetic Listening:

  1. Builds Trust
    According to the Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior: Indispensable Knowledge for Evidence‐Based Management the 3 critical elements for building trust are
    1. ability,
    2. benevolence
    3. and integrity.

“In order to increase trust, leaders need to take steps to increase their ability, build their benevolence, and demonstrate their integrity. Leaders can do so on a follower‐by‐follower basis, but can also take steps to create a culture of trustworthiness within their organizations.”

Empathetic listening is a perfect opportunity to do this on a one on one basis. It also helps to build a listening culture that fosters trust throughout the organization. Through better listening, you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you actually care about the well being of those you work with (benevolence). You can further demonstrate your integrity by following through on what was discussed. This follow-through can only happen once you have actually heard what your team has to say.

 2. Empathetic listening allows the speaker to release their emotions.

In business, we have long been taught to remain logical doing our best to remove emotion from the equation. The reality is that research demonstrates this is not really possible. As human beings we make decisions based on emotion, justified by logic. Allowing a healthy release of emotions is a great way to diffuse difficult situations.

3. Stress reduction

When a team feels like they are actually being heard and that they are valued they will feel more comfortable and therefore less stress.

From a leadership standpoint, decision making can be extremely stressful. You can reduce your own stress levels through better listening. Knowing that you have a more complete picture from your team from which to base decisions can help you more confidently move forward.

4. Better listening often leads to getting to the heart of the matter sooner than later.

In a sales context, I call this getting past the ‘stall’ to get to the ‘objection’. A stall is really just a deferral of a decision and not a true ‘objection’ that can be addressed. For example, a “Let me talk to my partner” may be a legitimate requirement or it may simply be a stall because your prospect feels your product or service is too… fill in the blank. Expensive, poor quality, etc.

In this case, you may need to ask more questions to get past the stall to find out what the real objection is.

In leadership, it is easy to make assumptions about team comprehension of, buy in to, or desire to achieve your organizational vision. These assumptions usually come from our own experiences and may or may not be relevant to you and your current team. Fostering a culture of listening will assist you to identify any current or potential disconnects from where you are and where you want the team to go.

5. Creates a safe, collaborative workplace that is more conducive to problem-solving

When your team feels heard without judgment they are more likely to speak freely without reservation. As previously discussed this allows the leadership team to more readily identify areas for improvement and more importantly it serves to foster a culture of collaboration. It is when our teams feel safe to express thoughts and ideas that innovation happens.

How can we do it?

If you are still reading at this point I am going to presume that you buy into the value of empathetic listening. So the next question is obvious… How do we do it?

  1. Listen with all of your senses. Check body language and tonality as well as the actual verbiage.
  2. Listen even when no one is speaking.
    I was out for a run with my Sunday run group and was discussing this topic with a friend who is in a management position. One of the things that she brought up that I thought was absolutely brilliant was this concept of listening even when no one is speaking. What I mean by that is to pay attention to your surroundings. The mood of the office, the conversations at the water cooler. Where do people light up with respect to the organization? What aspects do they dread?
  3. Be aware of raw spots.
    I first heard the term ‘raw spot’ while reading Susan Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight: Conversations for connection. The book is meant to be a guide for couples in a relationship though many of the principles are well heeded by any business leader. A raw spot can cause a response/reaction that may seem disproportionate to the situation. For example a team member who was constantly publicly berated under prior leadership may be extremely sensitive to conversations about performance no matter how trivial they may be.  
  4. Accessible, Responsive and Engaged.
    Another concept in the same relationship book is what the author describes as “A.R.E. you there?”. I have found this to be a great acronym when it comes to practicing the art of empathetic listening. These three pieces are a great checklist to keep top of mind.
  5. Ask questions: More often than not what people need are not better answers but simply better questions. In a leadership role, it is easy to get sucked into the belief that we always have to provide answers. The truth of the matter is that providing better questions is substantially more valuable than providing answers. There is also an additional advantage in that asking the right questions can actually change peoples way of thinking. There is a popular phrase in psychology “Neurons that fire together wire together.” meaning that the more our brain cells communicate with each other in a certain fashion the more those neural pathways become ‘wired together’. Asking strategic questions allows us to shape the thought patterns of our team keeping those neurons firing in a positive manner that assists in moving forward toward organizational objectives.
  6. Getting to the heart of the matter. Sometimes people are slow to have difficult conversations with leadership. It is important to recognize this and practice the art of patience and question in order to dig deeper and get to the root of an issue.
  7. Repeat back/paraphrase – Take the time to recount what you have heard in your own language and ask for confirmation. There are many times when what we hear is not what people said (or meant to say). Taking the time to confirm what you heard not only ensures clarity it also demonstrates caring, making your team feel more valued.

Bringing it all together

Empathetic listening is as much an art as it is a skill. And like any other art or skill, it requires practice in order to achieve mastery. I am going to ask you to not ‘try’ any of the concepts I have outlined above. Instead, I am going to ask you to ‘practice’ all of them. A subtle shift in language I know, but this reframing from trying to practicing can make the difference.

The beauty of the art of listening is that it can be practiced anywhere.

It requires no special equipment. Simply the presence of, and interaction with, another human being. Listening as a leadership trait is not limited to the boardroom and workplace. Look for opportunities to practice the skills we have discussed wherever you are. You can practice with your kids, your spouse, your neighbor or even your grocer or barista. Try them out and see what happens to the quality of relationships in your life at all levels!

Your thoughts?
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