Change Your Business and Life with Empathic Listening

Change Your Business and Life with Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening

When I first became a Vistage Chair several years ago, I thought I already had good listening skills.  I was wrong.  Since then, I have become convinced that if everyone knew how to truly listen, relationships and businesses would vastly improve.  Let’s briefly explore listening.Change Your Business and Life with Empathic Listening

Understanding others would be so much easier if only everyone would see the world as I do.  Unfortunately, that never seems to happen! When most people “listen”, they are actually thinking about what they are going to say in response to what they are hearing.  Their focus is on themselves. This can unintentionally send the message “Hey, you are wrong or you don’t understand. Listen to me! What I have to say is more important than what you have to say.”

Empathic listening is listening with the intent to understand both the other person’s frame of reference and their feelings. All of your attention is on the other person. Listening empathically requires using more than just your ears. It relies on all your senses, seeing, hearing, feeling and intuiting, and this requires a great deal of energy. Effective empathic listening sends the message “I understand your problem and how you feel about it. What you are saying is important to me, and I am not judging you.”

In addition to these listening skills, to be truly empathic, you must have the desire and the ability to be aware of your own thoughts, triggers and emotions because these “traps” transfer the focus of the conversation back to you and may lure you into a reactive, charged state.

How to Listen With Empathy

Like any other valuable skill, empathic listening takes practice and dedication.  Here are some ways to start:

  1. Ignoring
  2. Pretending
  3. Selective listening- only hearing certain parts
  4. Attentive listening- listening to only the words
  5. Empathic listening
  •  Focus 100 % attention on the other person with gentle eye contact.  Don’t bother trying to do anything else while listening. Effective multitasking is a myth and is detrimental to understanding. Show the other person you understand both verbally with “I see”, “Oh”, “Uh-huh” and non-verbally by nodding your head.
  • Be quiet while the other person is speaking.
  • Ask open-ended questions, those without an implied solution.
  • Notice when your thoughts shift your focus or you when you become judgmental. When this happens, stop your mind by focusing on your breathing and being aware of your body (wiggling my toes works for me!). This stops intrusive thoughts and refocuses attention on the other person.
  • Pretend you are the other person. How have his unique experiences shaped his perception?  What is he feeling?
  • Allow him to feel his emotions. Notice how you react to his feelings.  Are you uncomfortable?  Don’t discount his reactions with phrases like “It’s not that bad,” or “It will all work out O.K.”
  • Don’t give advice.  Instead, ask the person, “How can I help?”

How can you tell if you are listening empathically? Ask the other person if he feels heard. You cannot judge whether the other person feels understood.

Empathic listening is difficult, especially in the beginning. It takes a great deal of courage to go into a deep listening mode because you expose yourself to outside influence and become vulnerable. Yet, in order for leaders to effectively influence others, they must first be open to being influenced themselves. The reward to do so can be substantial. In business, two immediately come to mind:

  1. There has been much published on the benefits of employee engagement.  Engagement is created when employees truly feel heard and trust their leaders.
  2. Many dollars are wasted on solving the wrong problem.  When people truly listen, the real problems surface and they can be effectively solved.

Devoting significant time and effort to practice empathic listening will increase your capacity to be present in, and benefit from, intense discussions where the other person’s viewpoint is radically different. Imagine how your life and business would improve if you really understood others and they felt that you really heard them. Try empathic listening with your next conversation!

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6 thoughts on “Change Your Business and Life with Empathic Listening”

  1. Harry Curley says:

    Cheryl asked the leadership of my company to read Chapter 5 of the book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People before our recent annual tactical planning session. This chapter is specifically about Empathic Listening. My team and I believe that Empathic Listening has the ability to alter not just our business lives, but our private lives as well. We’ve all begun testing this technique immediately, and feel that we can see the positive results already. For example, one team member used the empathic listening techniques described in Ch. 5 in a stressful client meeting the next day and turned an adversarial client into a friend and promoter during the course of a 1-hour meeting.

  2. Johnny P. Miller says:

    Cheryl hit it out of the park with this post. One can easily argue that this may be the most important skill any person can develop. I have had the pleasure to be coached by Cheryl over the past five years and I am a much better listener as a result. Without question this has made me a better leader in my organization and a better husband, father, friend, etc.

    I am very conscious of not “waiting to talk” and immediately recognize it in others while I am speaking with them. It is a roadblock to effective communication and actually starts to shut me down. Why should I continue to engage with you if you’re not even listening?

    I encourage anyone reading this to focus specifically on not “waiting to talk” as the first step in this skill development. It will make a difference in your life.

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