One of my favorite books is “the 7 habits of highly effective people”by Stephen Covey. In this book, habit 5 is “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Covey describes empathic listening as the highest form of listening. He writes: “Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel” (Covey, 1989).
Experts in communication estimate that 60% of our communication takes place through body language. They also say that only about 10% of communication take place through the words we speak. This is why empathic listening is one of the most important characteristic of leadership. When we are listening with empathy, we are able to understand and connect. We are listening at an emotional level, and an intellectual level.
In my experience, empathic listening is lacking from our managers and corporate leaders. This is especially true in the technology industry. Part of the problem is that we don’t know we are poor listeners. We don’t know because people at work are afraid to confront us about it.
Most people at work avoid face to face conflict at all cost, especially with their manager. Unfortunately, this avoidance technique has many negative repercussions.
In healthy relationships, we are comfortable confronting someone when we don’t feel understood. This is why spouses have no problem confronting each other if they don’t feel understood. Spouse’s trust each other and the confrontation is healthy.
Leaders should not get defensive when confronted by employees who feel they aren’t heard. Leaders should take the feedback as an opportunity for self-improvement. They should understand that they have built trust. They should also use the confrontation as an opportunity to practice humility.
For more on lack of trust and confrontation avoidance, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Lencioni describes absence of trust and fear of conflict. These two dysfunctions kill team productivity and cohesiveness (Lencioni, 2002).
To listen with empathy, we need to attune ourselves to the person who is communicating to us. We need to observe their body language and facial expressions, as well as hear the words they speak.
Here are 5 steps you can take to listen with empathy:
- Give your full attention. Look the person in the eye when they are speaking to you. Don’t look at your phone!
- Focus on listening. It’s hard to hear what someone is saying when you are forming a response.
- Pay close attention to body language and facial expressions. What are they telling you?
- After you feel like you are understanding the other person, repeat back to them what you heard.
- Acknowledge their feelings.
By acknowledging feelings, people feed understood. Listening with empathy deepens relationships and builds trust. As leaders, we need to connect with people on a deeper level. So next time you are listening to someone at work, listen with empathy.
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