Almost everyone in America has learned how to write, and many schools require a speech class. Therefore, it’s a safe bet that pretty much everyone in your workplace have been taught how to speak and write. But how many people have taken classes on listening skills? In my decades of working with teams, I can count on one hand the number of people who took a listening class.
Considering that communication is a two-way street, it’s vital that the people with whom we’re communicating feel heard. In recent months I’ve written about the importance of seeking the other person’s perspective on things before offering your own, but how we do that makes a huge impact on communication success.
More specifically, it’s one thing to think we’ve understood someone, but it’s something very different for the other person to truly feel understood. For that reason, let’s take this opportunity to discuss empathic listening.
The levels of listening
Most people practice different levels of listening throughout the week. Ignoring, pretending to listen, selectively listening and attentively listening. We use different levels for different occasions. In Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey underscores the importance of empathic listening. It’s a deeper level of listening that tunes in beyond a person’s words. It’s seeking to understand a person’s deeper thoughts and feelings about a matter.
Is empathic listening required all the time? Absolutely not. But if someone has a serious concern or there’s an important workplace issue that’s being addressed, we must drop all autobiographical listening, which is listening from our point of view, and practice empathic listening – seeking to grasp someone else’s deeper thoughts and feelings.
This doesn’t mean we need to agree with what’s being told to us, nor does it mean we need to feel the same way as the other person. Empathic listening is simply seeking to understand someone else at a deep level, then conveying that understanding in a non-judgmental and considerate way.
Think of yourself as an interpreter
If you’ve ever communicated through an interpreter, you probably have a grasp of empathic listening. You can’t understand the speaker, so you are automatically tuned in more to the person’s voice tone and body language. Your brain tunes into the speaker’s intensity levels and emotions. Then, when the interpreter conveys the actual words, you can merge the words with what you observed. You do this because you want to be sure you understand the true meaning of the communication.
Empathic listening with people who speak your own language works much the same way. One good technique for empathic listening is to go beyond someone else’s words and ask yourself, “What is the person thinking? What is the person feeling?” Is the person angry? Eager? Elated? Concerned? Then, when an appropriate break arrives, you can say something like, “It sound like you’re concerned about ‘X,’” or, “You seem pretty excited about ‘Y.’”
The idea is to deeply understand where the other person is coming from. Again, you don’t need to agree with it, but good communication involves understanding the other person’s thoughts and feelings about a matter and conveying that understanding in a non-critical way.