Empathic Listening

Going Beyond Active Listening

Empathic Listening - Going Beyond Active Listening

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Lending a sympathetic ear to your people can earn you trust and loyalty.

Empathic listening is a structured listening and questioning technique, which helps you to develop and enhance relationships through a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. As such, it can help you to take active listening techniques to a new level.

Why Use the Tool?

Honest and effective use of empathic listening can help you to win the trust of team members, and address the root cause of problems.

How to Use the Tool

Listen patiently to what the other person has to say, even when you do not agree with it. It is important to show the speaker acceptance, not necessarily agreement, by simply nodding or injecting phrases such as, "I understand" or, "I see."

Try to get a feel for the feelings that the speaker is expressing, while staying mindful of the emotional content being delivered.

Think of yourself as a mirror. Repeat the speaker's thoughts and feelings.

While encouraging the speaker to continue with his or her message, interject summary responses. Examples of these could include, "So you do not feel as though you play a strong enough role on the team." Or, "You feel your talents and experiences would better be 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 round 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.

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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 as well. Often, what the speaker holds back is as important as what he is saying. Pay attention to his body language. Nonverbal signs like keeping his head down, shifting away from you or covering his mouth could signal that he's holding something back, or feels uncomfortable.

If the speaker asks for your input, be honest. But, try to refrain from providing input that may influence his thoughts or inhibit further communication.

Tip:

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 her to communicate more freely. In doing this, you ensure better outcomes for the her, 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.

Example

As a manager, John prides himself on being there for his team members and maintains an open-door policy. He feels he knows each team member quite well and regularly engages in "personal" conversations with each, working to stay up to date with the going-ons 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.

You've also noticed that she's not looking too well. She was late for her meetings yesterday, which was unlike her, and she seems disinterested 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 the bottom of this, John uses an empathic listening technique to uncover the source of Natalie's uncharacteristically poor work performance.

He calls Natalie into his office and simply asks her how he can help her. This helps to lower 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), careful to avoid interjecting or interrupting her. It's not long before he uncovers the problem. It appears that Natalie's been going through a divorce and taking care of an ill parent at the same time.

During their conversation, John regularly acts as a mirror to Natalie. He repeats points that she's made, so she knows that he understands. He also 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 as well. Interestingly, throughout the conversation, this previously confidant woman kept her head and eyes down. Overall, she seemed terribly defeated.

After allowing Natalie to get everything off her chest, John provides support and not judgment. John 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 relevant support and resources that are available to her through the company's HR department, such as counseling and financial planning, etc.

Crucially, John keeps the conversation to himself. He lets Natalie know that what she told him will stay between them. And, 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.

Key Points

An empathic listener's role is to be supportive, kind and caring. In empathic listening, success is measured by the ability to take the contents out of the account or the sequence of events and allow these to rise to the surface.

Listen carefully and non-judgementally and, where appropriate, repeat key phrases to encourage people to open up. Pay as much attention to what's not being said as to what's being said. For instance, by paying attention to the emotional state of the speaker, his tone of voice, and his body language.

And when you successfully win trust and confidence, make sure that you respect it.

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Comments (7)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi jbjarnson,

    For me identifying what's not being said is a function of how well you know the person. When you have developed a strong relationship with a person, you become familiar with their habits, mannerisms, their communication style and behavior. When the person acts out of character, you recognize that the familiar patterns have been disrupted. If you ask the person if everything is OK and the person responds that, "I'm fine," when clearly they are not, this is the point when something is not being said. The person is choosing not to say what's bothering them.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago jbjarnson wrote
    It would be handy to have examples of "what's not being said" as it's mentioned several times but without clear examples that could mean anything.
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Subhashish,

    Welcome to the club. As one of the Mind Tools Team, I'm here to help you here and in the Forums, and to get the very most from the Club.

    I agree with your understanding of the tool. I found it very hard to listen empathically at first, as I always had the instinct to want to interrupt. With a little effort, I became a much better listener.
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