communication is central to every workplace

Communication is central to every workplace. From managing staff to connecting with clients, and colleagues, the ability to communicate effectively is directly linked to your organization’s overall success.

And while most of us are well-versed in speaking and writing, there is one mode of communication that often goes overlooked: listening.

Arguably the most important form of communication, listening requires more than just hearing what a person is saying. It requires a deeper level of understanding– something commonly referred to as empathic listening.

In today’s blog, we’ll provide a complete overview of empathic listening and why it’s the key to successful leadership.

Listening With the Intent to Understand vs Reply

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and midway through your sentence you could see they had already begun preparing their response? Or maybe it was worse. Maybe they interrupted you before you could even finish your train of thought.

If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is. According to Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

When another person is speaking, Dr. Covey found that we’re usually listening at one of the following four levels:

  • Ignoring: choosing not to listen at all.
  • Pretending: not really listening but attempting to make the speaker believe we are with responses such as, “Yes. Right.”
  • Selective listening: hearing only certain parts of the conversation.
  • Attentive listening: providing full attention and focusing our energy on the words being said.

Very few of us practice the highest form of listening: empathic listening. To break this cycle, Dr. Covey devised the fifth habit, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

What is Empathic Listening?

Empathic listening, according to Indeed, is the process of making an emotional connection with the person who is speaking. It enables listeners to put themselves in the position of the speaker and feel what they are facing.

The main goal of empathic listening is to provide support and encouragement to the speaker– something that requires you to be fully present and attentive to what they’re saying, verbally and non-verbally. Believed to be an extension of active listening, but with a stronger focus on feelings, with empathic listening, the speaker is provided with a safe space to feel heard and validated.

With this communication technique, you can develop and further enhance relationships with a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both emotionally and intellectually.

Why is Empathic Listening Important in the Workplace?

Practicing empathic listening at work provides a whole host of benefits. From helping to build professional relationships and establishing yourself as a leader to encouraging others to trust you, empathic listening is a tool that proves useful in virtually every workplace.

Here are some of the top ways it can improve your workspace:

Improves collaboration
Empathic listening is a crucial skill for effective collaboration. When you understand what drives each of your team members, you can provide them with roles that fit these motivations. This not only improves the quality of their work but makes them more invested in their position within your organization.

Practicing empathic listening also enables us to identify situations where someone’s needs may hinder their ability to connect with us. For example, if an exhausted employee remains distracted in a conversation, you might assume they’re not interested in what you have to say– but when you hear about their child’s recent flu, you realize why they weren’t paying attention and feel less frustrated by their lack of focus.

Strengthens relationships
Empathic listening is a powerful tool that can be used to improve relationships at all levels in the workplace– and beyond!

It creates an environment where employees can feel comfortable being themselves and confiding in team leaders and managers. They feel heard, understood, and respected, which in turn builds trust and forms the basis for strong, ever-lasting relationships.

When you employ empathic listening skills in your workplace, you’re setting up your company for success. Your employees will become more loyal and willing to raise issues as they arise, which will better equip you to address them before they become serious problems.

Creates a safe and inclusive environment

Listening with empathy goes beyond just listening. It’s about understanding and accepting others, no matter their differences. When you fully commit to this, you create a safe space where it’s okay to be yourself– no matter the differences.

Empathic listening helps you spot when an employee’s behavior may be unfairly interpreted, when a team strategy fails to consider all voices, and when a change in approach is necessary to be more inclusive.

Core Traits of an Empathic Listener

What does it look like to listen with empathy? While the approach varies for each listener, there are a few core traits that indicate someone is practicing empathic listening:

  • Becoming an empathic listener requires you to join the speaker wherever they are, without expectations. This means shelving the notion that you already have the answer to stay fully open to the speaker’s ideas and opinions.
  • Empathic listeners are open to learning more. Even if it doesn’t immediately pique their interest, they ask thoughtful questions in an attempt to comprehend what the speaker is telling them.
  • It comes as no surprise that empathy is a core trait of an empathic listener. Rather than focusing on their own personal experiences, feelings, or reactions, these listeners imagine what the speakers might be feeling. Even if what they are speaking about has never happened to them, they will try to relate to the underlying feelings and emotions that may be driving the conversation.
  • Active listening skills. One of the most obvious signs someone is practicing empathic listening is their engagement. These listeners are not gearing up with things to say while the speaker is sharing their story. They are providing them with their undivided attention and the occasional nonverbal cues and gestures.

6 Tips to Becoming an Empathic Listener

Ready to practice empathic listening? Here are several tips you can utilize in your next conversation.

1. Avoid Defensive Questions or Disputing Facts

Empathic listening can be difficult. You have to be able to step outside yourself and really listen to what the other person is saying, without allowing your own opinions or emotions to get in the way.

That’s why it’s important to avoid asking defensive questions, arguing with what they’re saying, or disputing facts. Instead, focus on what’s being said and how the speaker feels about it. If they say something that requires additional input, try repeating the statement as a question. For example: “So what you’re saying is that…?”

Refrain from evaluations, criticisms, or negative feedback. There may be times when something is said that riles you, but it’s important to remember, this isn’t about you– it’s about them. Your goal is to understand and provide emotional support– you don’t necessarily have to agree or disagree with everything they say. Any form of criticism will only create tension and make it more difficult for you to establish connections.

2. Don’t forget about nonverbal cues

Actions speak louder than words. Don’t forget to observe the speaker’s nonverbal cues:

  • Body language. How much space someone occupies in a room can indicate how confident or at ease they feel regarding a given topic or in the presence of a certain party.
  • People may subconsciously lower their voices to demonstrate authority or raise them in the presence of authority.
  • A change in speech pace can demonstrate a change in emotion.

Listeners should also consider their own body language. Posture and gestures can make the speaker feel welcome and safe. Adopting a relaxed posture with open arms, and constant eye contact is always good practice.

3. Mirror the Speaker

Another great way to practice empathic listening is to mirror the speaker. Paraphrasing, in addition to clarifying, questioning, and remembering details, are foundational elements of empathic listening. It’s a way to ensure that you’re interpreting what you’ve heard correctly while helping the speaker feel heard and validated.

You can do this by summarizing the speaker’s thoughts and feelings back to them. For example, if they say, “I felt like I wasn’t good enough,” you could say, “So it sounds like you felt like you weren’t good enough.”

4. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Stay clear of biased, leading, and close-ended questions that elicit one-worded responses. Aim instead for open-ended questions beginning with “what” or “how” so the speaker can take the lead in their response.

For instance, rather than “Do you think that meeting went well?” fuel the conversation by asking, “How do you think that meeting went?” Not only does this provide an opportunity for the speaker to share, but it allows you to stay neutral and better understand their position.

However, if you notice the speaker doesn’t feel comfortable answering your line of questions, allow them to take the lead in the conversation, even if that means long bouts of silence.

5. Don’t be Afraid of Silence

Silence can be a good thing. Sometimes all a person needs is to be heard or know someone is there.

Speaking too soon could risk cutting them off while they’re still formulating their thoughts. Pausing for just a few extra moments could give them the extra seconds they need to reflect and respond.

6. Remember, it’s not about you

You are the listener. Your job is to listen, connect and understand with empathy. Place your conversation partner above your own needs– you want them to feel heard, understood, and validated. It won’t be easy, especially if you’re an extrovert or someone who likes to take charge of situations. But with practice, it will become second nature.

It’s also important that during these conversations you refrain from giving unsolicited advice. If they ask for your opinion or advice on something, that’s one thing– but don’t offer solutions or instructions unless they are warranted. The goal here is not to provide answers but rather to be an ear and understand what the speaker is saying emotionally.

SWS Understands the Power of Empathic Listening

At SWS, we understand that listening to employees and customers is an essential part of running a successful business. That’s why we practice empathic listening.

We want to make sure that when you call us with a question or concern, you’re not just getting an answer– you’re getting the right answer.

Before we offer up our advice, we take the time to fully understand your needs and concerns. We make it our mission to truly listen to what you have to say so that we can help you find the best solution for your specific needs.

Remember: seek first to understand, and as always trust SWS for your warning lights! Contact us today to learn more about our state-of-the-art professional-grade warning lights.

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