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Listening and Empathy: Critical for Success

Listening is a skill.

Few other skills are more critical for effective communication and strong leadership than the ability to listen.

In fact listening is one leadership skill that ranks far and above all others in determining your overall success as a leader according to a new High-Resolution Leadership report from Development Dimensions International (DDI), a – report that was based on the analysis of real behaviors in assessment center simulations from over 15,000 leaders across 300 companies in 18 countries over a decade. According to the report Leaders who master listening and responding with empathy will perform more than 40 percent higher in overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and decision making, according to the research.

In the workplace, the focus on listening is likely that of a tool to foster effective work. And thus, we often come to think of listening largely as a tool to gain information. Listening is a necessity to acquire essential task-based and decisional information, but also information that simply helps us be in the loop, or to fit in the culture or team, or to meet other experiential needs and desires.

Information Is Power

In my own career I also learned the lesson, many times over, that the saying holds true – information is power. Whenever I had a leading role in anything I would listen first, talk second. It may seem backward but being able to influence is much more about listening than speaking. Before speaking you must first not only have the necessary information on hand, but you must also know other’s thoughts and perspectives in order to find the influence sweet spots. Listening and influence are not mutually exclusive. Many great influencers have also been great listeners.

Listening is one of the most powerful relationship builder and/or strengthener. Listening shows respect, engenders trust and connects people emotionally and intellectually. In case you doubt the power of listening, I ask, “Who are the great listeners you know or have known?” I bet you can name them quickly regardless of how near or far they are or whether recent or past.

An Example

My cousin Barb and I grew up together and have kept mostly in touch throughout or lives. In my late forties at a time of reconnection with Barb, I told her she had always been a hero of mine, or rather the hero of mine, because of the great amount of laudable work she has done in her life. Much of her work was as a volunteer and all of it was done in service to others. When I told her she was my hero, she countered that it was the other way around.

Since adolescence I had always been her hero. And the reason was that I listened. I am several years older than Barb, but we were close even when I was a teen and she a pre-teen. She recalls perfectly the two of us talking during long walks together during a time when her life was difficult for her. I recall these times together, but I was a teenage boy oblivious to her angst. Yet the teenage boy took the time to listen to his younger female cousin.

That simple act was so important to Barb that she can recall clearly how it made her feel after all these years, and how helpful it was for her for no reason other than a caring, friendly ear. My listening touched her, and her story touches me deeply. Her story is invaluable not only as a lesson in connection, but it is also testament to the durable and strengthening power of listening.

Don’t Pretend to Listen

Another thing I learned about listening during my long career …

Don’t pretend to listen. People eventually see through any subterfuge regardless of how well you mask it.

In not being forthright you will either be seen as someone not to be trusted or someone who is only placating. In either case, you will be seen as someone not to connect with.  Listen, do not not listen.

Listening, as opposed to non-listening which occurs in various forms not presented here, has two basic forms: 1) give-and-take and 2) empathetic.

Empathetic Listening

With give-and-take listening, the more common form, a person legitimately listens with their own interests equal to what the speaker is saying. It is basically taking turns – turning on and off selfish listening with empathetic listening. There is nothing inherently wrong with give-and-take listening. But empathetic listening can yield greater value.

Research shows there is no other single leadership skill that is more important than empathy and yet, in today’s culture, it is near extinction.

There is a wealth of research that shows empathy is on the decline, A study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that college students are 40 percent less likely to have empathy compared to 20 to 30 years ago. DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership report found the same in today’s workplace. Only 40 percent leaders were proficient or strong in empathy. Of the eight leadership interaction skills measured, listening and responding with empathy was one of the weakest.

We need to increase empathy. This starts with empathetic listening.

Empathetic listening is solely about the other person and what she or he has to say. This listening, sometimes called receptive or active listening, requires movement of position and/or perspective. Receptive listening is hard. We sometimes call this active listening because it requires effort. And it is the type of listening most difficult for some to master.

Follow These Steps

  1. Listen. Keep your mind quiet and process the other person’s words in a focused manner. (On average, we retain just 25 percent of what we hear, which is because of our busyness and lack of listening skills.)
  2. Repeat the speaker’s words. This is a simple form of reflecting and involves repeating almost exactly what the speaker says. Repeating what the speaker says shows you’re paying attention, at a minimum. More importantly, it ensures you did indeed hear all that was said.
  3. Rephrase. At this stage, rephrase what the other person said, using your own words. This ensures you understood and will reveal any misunderstanding. Paraphrasing involves using different words to reflect what the speaker has said. It demonstrates not only that you are listening but that you are attempting to understand.
  4. Reflect on what the other person said. Focus on the feelings behind the words. Reflect what you sense. This helps get to the real (personal) meaning of the words. Consider this “listening with your heart.”

It is difficult to resist the temptation to ask questions when you first use this technique. And it is difficult to remain completely focused and not think about your own thoughts, perspectives and experiences.

Although the rephrasing step may seem stilted and awkward, is vital to the process. When you both rephrase content and reflect feeling, others will sense your desire to really listen and understand. It also demonstrates that full and correct information was shared and that you understand it from the perspective of the speaker. It also shows you care.

If you are a good listener, you will become known as such. People will seek you out for support, and in return you gain valuable relationships as well as valuable information.

I started this article saying listening was a skill – more correctly … Active listening is an art, a skill and a discipline that takes a high degree of self-control.

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