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.
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:
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:
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!