One of the hardest things to do is listen – really listen – to another person. Instead of being fully present as they explain, complain or share, our minds are busy thinking about something else or planning what we’ll say next. At our most altruistic, we’re contemplating what to say that will help. Parker Palmer of the Center for Courage & Renewal suggests that this response is ego driven and not empathetic. We’re more focused on how we can save the day than we are on being there for someone who needs our non-judgmental, selfless ear.
In addition, empathetic listening is in a constant battle with our short attention spans and our belief that the more we speak, the better we must be. As Valerie Brown, a leadership coach and facilitator for Courage and Renewal, points out in her blog for the center, western culture rewards fast-talking, think-on-your feet behavior, while listening for genuine connection requires so much of us.
Empathetic listening requires emotional intelligence. To do it well, we must push aside your own need to win, fix others or one-up them. We must learn to listen without judgment – good or bad.
As a leader, the difficulties inherent to empathetic listening are magnified, but so is the importance of putting ego aside to genuinely connect with others. Often times, leaders believe they must have all the answers, or that their primary role is to fix problems rather than be a trusted ear.
Brown offers several tips that will sharpen your empathetic listening skills. Here are a few gems.
- Avoid judgment. Instead, work to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is rather than agree or disagree with it.
- Avoid giving advice. Problem solving will likely to be more effective once both parties understand each other’s perspectives and feel heard.
- Mindfully observe yourself. When do you tune out or become distracted? What does giving someone your undivided attention feel like? What happens when you interrupt and when you don’t? What happens when you let go of your agenda and focus on being present?
I’ve noticed that when I’m working to listen empathetically, I actually feel like a load has lifted. Not tending to the dual task of hearing someone out while searching my mind for a solution allows me to listen fully, focused solely on acknowledging my friend, colleague or client that they are being heard, received and accepted. And that’s something we all yearn for.