How to Be a Better Empathetic Listener

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member and HR Bartender, Sharlyn Lauby. It is a direct response to The Workforce Institute Weigh-In question for February on how to create a culture where employees feel comfortable providing feedback.

We all know that listening is important. When it comes to work, listening allows us to gain understanding. And better understanding results in more positive work relationships and improved results. Which is why we need to get listening right.

However, as important as listening is, it can be equally difficult to do. Listening takes work and effort. One of the ways we can become better listeners is by understanding the different types of listening, so we can catch ourselves if we’re not listening the way we should.

  • Ignoring is a form of listening. We’re choosing not to listen. Often, distractions like other people or technology devices keep us from giving someone our full attention.
  • Pretend listening happens when we want others to think that we’re paying attention but, in reality, we’re thinking about something else (like our vacation plans).
  • Selective listening takes place when we’re listening for a specific thing. We’re so focused on waiting or wanting to hear the other person say that specific thing, that we could be missing out on key information.
  • Competitive listening is when we’re listening for an opportunity to respond with our point of view. We might be hearing the words that someone is saying, but we’re more focused on being ready to pounce back instead of digesting the information.
  • Active listening is when we’re giving our full attention to someone and understanding what they have to say. It often includes being able to repeat or paraphrase what the individual said to confirm understanding.  

The reason I wanted to mention these forms of listening is because there’s another form of listening that we really need to spend time working on. Empathetic listening is about connecting understanding with empathy. Think of it as one step up from active listening. Not only do we want to understand what someone is saying, but we want to empathize with their reason for saying it.

When employees feel that they will not only be heard but that it’s safe to be themselves, it builds psychological safety within the organization. And it is psychological safety that helps the organization become more inclusive. The first step is empathetic listening to feedback.

So, how do we become better empathetic listeners?

Get rid of distractions. This isn’t about technology being evil. It’s not. Even technology companies understand the need for pushing your device to the side for a few moments to listen to someone. Don’t let distractions derail the conversation. If you feel that it would be hard to stay focused, ask if you can schedule the conversation for another time.

Check your biases. If we want to be empathetic, we need to recognize any possible biases that could influence the conversation. We might have history with an individual that could influence the conversation — either positive or not-so positive.

Stay in the moment. Depending on the conversation, it might be a challenge to stay focused. Ask if you can take notes so you don’t need to interrupt. It could be tempting to start formulating a response. Stay focused on the other person and their feedback. Learn to be comfortable with silence if the other person needs time to compose their words.

Ask good questions. If we need additional information, questions are a great way to follow up. Closed-ended questions allow us to obtain clarity. Open-ended questions provide additional insights. Knowing the right questions to ask can send the message that we’re trying to learn and connect with the other person and their reason for the conversation.

Confirm understanding and empathy. There are two things we want the other person to know. First, that we understand what they said. And second, that we’re able to connect with them (empathize) about it. This means that we need to be willing to empathize in terms of acknowledging our own feelings.

The real key to empathetic listening, of course, is the empathy part. Empathy is one of those concepts that’s very easy to describe and very difficult to do. Empathy is when we’re emotionally able to put ourselves in another person’s position. It’s where the “connection” with another person happens.

Sometimes when we think about empathy, we only think about bad or sad situations. Empathy is tricky, especially when we’re talking about mixed emotions. Here’s an example: Let’s say an employee comes into your office and says, “My partner just got a new job in another city.” You don’t know if the employee is excited because it’s a great opportunity for their partner OR if they’re mad because now they have to move to another city OR they’re nervous because they want to ask you about remote work. Or maybe a little bit of all three.

This is why we need to listen to the employee. We can’t insert our biases into the conversation. Find out how they’re feeling and be supportive. It creates the connections that we need for positive working relationships. And it’s those relationships that will help the organization become more inclusive.