Going Beyond Active Listening
Empathic listening is a structured listening and questioning technique that allows you to develop and enhance relationships with a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. As such, it takes active listening techniques to a new level.
In this article, we'll explore how honest and effective use of empathic listening can help you to win the trust of team members, and address the root cause of workplace problems.
(You can check your understanding of empathy more broadly in our article, Empathy at Work.)
Empathic Listening Skills
To use empathic listening, listen patiently to what the other person has to say, even if you do not agree with it. It is important to show acceptance, though not necessarily agreement, by simply nodding or injecting phrases such as "I understand" or "I see."
Try to get a sense of the feelings that the speaker is expressing, and stay mindful of the emotional content being delivered as well as the literal meaning of the words.
Think of yourself as a mirror. Repeat the speaker's thoughts and feelings back to them.
Encourage the speaker to continue with their message by interjecting summary responses. For example, "So you do not feel as though you play a strong enough role on the team." Or, "You feel your talents and experiences would be better utilized in another position." Or, you could say, "You feel as though you are undervalued on this project." This should be done in a neutral way, so as not to "lead" the speaker to your way of thinking.
An empathic listener works to keep the speaker from feeling or becoming defensive. To do this, avoid asking direct questions, arguing with what is being said, or disputing facts. The evidence can be considered later. For now, concentrate fully on what is being said and how the speaker feels.
When the speaker says something that requires additional input, simply repeat the statement as a question. For instance, if the speaker says, "I am not happy in my current position," you can probe further by replying, "You say you are not happy in your current position?" This small amount of encouragement may be all that it takes to prompt the speaker to elaborate further.
Be mindful of what is not being said, too. Often, what the speaker holds back is as important as what they are saying. Pay attention to their body language. Nonverbal signs like keeping the head down, shifting away from you or covering the mouth could signal that they're holding something back, or that they feel uncomfortable.
If the speaker asks for your input, be honest. But, try to refrain from providing input that may influence their thoughts or inhibit further communication.
When you're listening empathically, keep your own emotions in check and do not allow yourself to become emotionally involved. Remember: understand first, evaluate later.
Finally, keep in mind that by earning the speaker's confidence, you are allowing them to communicate more freely. In doing this, you create better outcomes for the speaker, for yourself, for your team, and for the company as a whole.
Where you've earned this trust, make sure you don't betray it.
Empathic Listening Example
As a manager, John prides himself on being there for his team members, and he maintains an open-door policy. He feels that he knows each team member quite well and regularly engages in "personal" conversations with them, staying up to date with the events in their lives, both at work and outside of work.
Recently, he noticed Natalie pulling away from the team. During meetings, she seems distracted and no longer provides the high level of input that the team has come to expect from her.
Other team members have also noticed that she's not looking too well. She was late for her meetings yesterday, which was unlike her, and she seems less interested in work more generally, too.
John approaches Natalie to ask if something is wrong. But she becomes defensive and says, "Why do you ask?" and, "I'm fine."
A few more weeks go by and, still not satisfied with her performance, John continues to become more concerned for Natalie. Previously, she'd been the backbone of a thriving team.
To get to root of the issue, John uses empathic listening techniques to discover the source of Natalie's uncharacteristically poor work performance.
Empathic Listening Techniques
John calls Natalie into his office and simply asks her how he can help. This lowers her defenses and shows that he's willing to support her. Then, he listens to what Natalie says (as well as what she doesn't say), and takes care to avoid interrupting. It's not long before he uncovers the problem: Natalie has been going through a divorce and taking care of an ill parent at the same time.
During their conversation, John acts as a mirror to Natalie. He repeats the points that she's made, so she knows that he understands. He rephrases her comments into questions during pauses in the conversation and asks for further input from her.
John pays attention to Natalie's body language, too. Interestingly, throughout the conversation, this usually confident person kept her head and eyes down. Overall, she seemed defeated.
Counseling and Support
After allowing Natalie to finish, John provides support without judgment. He offers to temporarily lighten Natalie's workload, and reassures her that her responsibilities will be waiting for her when she's ready to return to normal. John also makes Natalie aware of the support and resources that are available to her through the company's HR department, such as counseling and financial planning.
Crucially, John keeps the conversation to himself. He lets Natalie know that what she has said will stay between them. He encourages Natalie to keep him updated on the situation and allows her time to go to the counseling sessions that she plans through the company's HR department.
John took note of Natalie's obvious pain and listened empathically. The result: Natalie took just over a month to get better and when she returned at full speed, her work was better than ever – as was her focus, and her loyalty to John, to the team, and to the company.
The role of an empathic listener is to be supportive, kind and caring.
Listen carefully and without judgment. Interject occasionally to show that you've understood what's being said. Where appropriate, repeat key phrases to encourage the speaker to open up.
Pay attention to what's not being said, too. Take note of the speaker's emotional state, their tone of voice, and their body language.
And, when you successfully win their trust and confidence, make sure that you respect it.
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