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Want to Avoid Poor Discussions? Listen With Empathy

Listen with Empathy

​Are you longing for more meaningful and satisfying conversations? Trying to truly connect with your clients and their needs? Desiring to foster greater rapport and trust with others? Wanting to avoid another costly misunderstanding? If any of these interpersonal challenges resonate with you then make it your ongoing objective to listen with empathy. In this article I describe the vital role of empathy in connecting with people in our personal and business lives. Then I offer ways to develop it.

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Seaweed Helped Me to Listen With Empathy

I recently attended an interactive half-day professional development workshop. [1]

We were instructed to individually reflect for a few minutes on a natural object taken from the sea and then each accurately describe it to the others. Our object was seaweed.

I was astounded at the diversity of perspectives. All so different and yet all of them were still valid responses to the directive “accurately describe your natural object.” 

I visually dissected the seaweed, describing its colour, texture, shape, and smell. Yes the smell of stale sea was pervading! Others took a conceptual perspective, describing the  seaweed’s function within its ocean ecosystem. Still others described its life and death cycle after having been removed from its habitat.

As we shared our descriptions I felt my perspective enlarging to include those conceptual narratives about the seaweed’s purpose and reason for existing.

This short time of reflecting, sharing and listening created much connection between us.

We’d begun to discover each other’s perspectives, personalities and values. Furthermore, our individual understandings of the discussion topic had grown to include each others' understandings.

We were listening with empathy.

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions
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Want Even Better Conversations?

Enter your details to get easy, regular listening tips that actually work, as well as other free training tips and downloads.

From time to time I'll launch paid products for subscribers wanting to go further, but will never spam you - I hate it with a passion!

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions

What Do We Mean By Listen With Empathy?

When talking about empathy we more likely think of experiencing the feelings of another, which is called ‘emotional empathy’. [2, 3]

But two distinct types of empathy are developed when we listen: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. [4] In order to be effective listeners, we need to intentionally cultivate both.

Let’s look at each type in the context of listening.

"To understand a person speaking and to connect with them we need to develop cognitive and emotional empathy for them. This is our primary aim as good listeners." Andrew Ward

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Listening With Cognitive Empathy

The first type of empathy that comes into play during conversations is ‘perspective taking’ or ‘cognitive empathy’. 

‘Listening with cognitive empathy’ is listening until we understand how a person feels and understand what they think about the topic of discussion. 

More specifically, it’s listening in order to understand how they think and feel about the topic based on their background (an insider’s perspective). For example, “I can understand how you’ve come to that point of view based on what you've experienced.”

This differs from assuming how they might think and feel about the topic based on our background (an outsider’s perspective). For example, “If I were in their shoes, I’d be doing [x, y, z].” 

The failing of this outsider perspective is that we’re incorrectly assuming that their history, environment, culture, training and expertise, opinions and beliefs, and how they feel about the topic are the same as ours. 

But they’re not. 

And no one's perspective ever will be exactly the same as ours. 

This means that we must seek to develop cognitive empathy in every dialogue that we have. Because if we don’t listen with empathy then the end result will likely be a misunderstanding or even a disagreement. 

Cross-Cultural Interaction Is a Perfect Example of Insider and Outsider Perspectives

We often try to imagine what another culture is like as an outside observer, using our own worldview.

Cognitive empathy however, is understanding a culture by imagining ourselves as someone who has grown up inside that culture with their worldview.

Admittedly, attaining the speaker's insider perspective is much harder than defaulting to our outsider perspective. This is because imagining what their situation is like is not the same as actually experiencing their situation.

Even so, attempting to develop even a moderate amount of cognitive empathy with the speaker will still make us better listeners. It will help us more accurately interpret their message in the way that they intended.

Cognitive Empathy In Action

Cognitive empathy (i.e. perspective-taking) helps us in all sorts of everyday conversations: 

  • In social discussions we engage more fully with our friends when we can imagine the topic from their perspective. We can celebrate more fully with their wins and respond more sensitively to their losses. Also, we can more skillfully share insight from aspects of our experience that are relevant to them.
  • A manager can better help a stressed employee when they understand the situation from the employee’s perspective. Cognitive empathy is about understanding why the situation is stressing the employee and how it is impacting their work productivity, personal life and health.
  • For co-workers that we clash with, seeking to understand them can be helpful. This could include getting to know their personality types, interests, side hustles, family, etc. Being their best buddies isn’t necessary. But cognitive empathy helps us flex in order to accommodate each other’s uniqueness.
  • Salespeople can utilise cognitive empathy to determine which product or service will best help their customer given their specific circumstances. In particular, what are their existing company processes, internal politics, deliverables, time constraints, etc? Furthermore, understanding the customer’s situation might even bring a realisation that the customer will be better served by other providers.
  • Society is colourful. Every day we engage with people holding completely different religious beliefs, political views, cultural norms, core values, etc. Better understanding these differences and why they’re important to each other helps us develop mutual respect.

Listening With Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is the ability to share (experience) another person’s emotions. [3, 5] Here is a short, brilliant animated video that illustrates the concept of emotional empathy. [6]

In summary, when a person tells us how they feel (such as distressed or happy), we’re emotionally empathising with them when we’re experiencing those same emotions as though we were actually in their situation.

Therefore, listening with emotional empathy is vitally important for some types of dialogue.

For example, Michael Sorensen, author of 'I Hear You' writes that many people aren't seeking advice when they relate an emotional situation to us. Mostly, they're wanting connection and validation. They're needing to share that moment with someone who can and will experience their emotions with them. They're needing someone to validate that it's normal for them to be feeling that way. [7]

However, unlike cognitive empathy, emotional empathy isn't essential in every type of dialogue; e.g. showing someone how to perform a task or during negotiations. And it can even be unhelpful, like when we need to attend to our own emotional needs. [8] Or like when this focus on emotions interferes with our rational decision-making. [9]

Having said this, one could argue that even in business interactions a little bit of emotional empathy is useful. It can make us more human and better able to connect with our clients' and stakeholders' needs!

Points To Consider

Emotional empathy typically builds on cognitive empathy. This is because we need to understand a bit about the person and their situation in order to experience their emotions and to correctly interpret them.

Furthermore, it’s important to not fake or force emotional empathy. While developing a cognitive understanding of their situation we may realise our need to truthfully admit, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel right now.” [6, 7]

How to Listen With Empathy

Tips On Developing Cognitive Empathy

The Active Listening process is one very effective method of developing cognitive empathy.

Here are some Active Listening tips for seeing the discussion topic from the speaker's perspective:

  • Imagine that you are the speaker in their situation.
  • Just listen. Don’t talk or interrupt except to ask questions. Once you can understand their perspective then you can share your views.
  • Listen out for their feelings and emotions as well as their actual words spoken.
  • Keep an open-mind. To listen with empathy we must listen without judgement. Let go of preconceived ideas of what they believe and feel. Prepare to be continually surprised!
  • Temporarily suspend your own opinions and feelings about the topic so that you can truly hear what they’re saying. It’s very easy to disregard their intended message and subconsciously pounce on statements, out-of-context, in order to confirm our beliefs. This is known as confirmation bias
  • Clarify when you catch yourself jumping to conclusions. Ask the following: “Hang on a minute, I think I might be misunderstanding you. What did you mean by [repeat their statement word for word]?”
  • Encourage them to elaborate further with back-channel signals (“mmhmm”, “aha”, “go on”, etc) and with questions (“Why is that?” “What might that look like in practice?” “What does that look/feel like?” “What was [x, y, z] like for you?”)
  • Reflect any feelings that you observe, followed by a question to further explore their message and feelings:

“You sound [concerned] about service plan K. What’s concerning you?”

Or,

“You seem [upset, excited, passionate] by the culture in the team. Tell me more.”

Tips On Developing Emotional Empathy

A widely recommended approach for developing emotional empathy is to imagine what it feels like to be in their situation. [7] 

In the above video, Dr Brené Brown adds to this advice. She says that in order to connect with someone emotionally, we have to connect with something inside ourselves that knows that feeling. [6]

Also, develop emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is firstly being aware of our own emotions and those of the speaker. Then it’s knowing how to harness them in a way that enhances the conversation. A beneficial outcome of harnessing emotions is that we develop a healthy level of emotional empathy.

You Don’t Need To Agree To Listen With Empathy

Seeking to fully understand somebody’s perspective doesn't mean needing to agree with them. 

It only means keeping an open-mind and withholding judgement long enough to adequately understand the other person’s perspective. 

If you disagree with something being said, firstly listen to the point when you can empathise with them. Then go ahead and tactfully share why you disagree.

Empathy is Our Goal As Listeners

While listening to someone, our end goal is to adequately understand the message that they’re trying to convey to us.

To achieve this we need to listen with empathy. That is, we must understand both their perspective and their feelings about the topic (perspective-taking or cognitive empathy). And then sometimes we also need to experience their emotions with them (emotional empathy).

It’s true that attaining this speaker's insider perspective is much harder than defaulting to our outsider perspective. But making the effort to listen with empathy reaps big rewards. We:

  • avoid costly misunderstandings

  • connect more effectively with people

  • better understand their needs

  • develop trust

  • build rapport

  • change and expand our worldview

  • experience highly productive conversations

What’s one thing that you can do this week to better understand people that speak with you? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Notes

  1. 1
    The workshop was organised and facilitated by group-work coaches Kim Chamberlain and Bernie White. Kim and Bernie run courses throughout New Zealand to help small groups develop their faculties to accurately observe and respond from within interconnected, always moving, systems such as our teams, groups & organisations. For more information see www.westerlywild.com.
  2. 2
    Empathy often gets confused with sympathy. This isn’t helped by some authors using the terms sympathy and empathy interchangeably. Empathy is when we come alongside a person in their situation, taking on their perspective (cognitive empathy) and possibly also feeling their emotions with them (emotional empathy). E.g. “I feel your disappointment”. Whereas, sympathy is feeling joy, anger and other emotions for that person as they go through that emotional time. But we're not necessarily feeling that person's actual emotions and we're staying detached from the situation. E.g. “I am so sorry you are hurting”. [6, 8]
  3. 3
    Google Dictionary, “Empathy”, referenced 22 June 2019.
  4. 4
    The definition of empathy is somewhat grey. Some researchers split empathy into distinct categories. Namely, affective (or emotional) empathy, cognitive empathy (aka perspective taking) and somatic empathy. This is because studies show that different parts of the brain are used for each form of empathy. Other researchers however, have rejected emotional and cognitive empathy as distinctly separate forms of empathy. They argue instead, that “true empathy” integrates both. [10] Confusingly, some popular reference literature loosely define empathy in terms of feelings only. [3] For descriptions on each form see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy#Classification_and_types_of_empathy.
  5. 5
    Burton, Neel M.D., "Empathy vs Sympathy - Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always.", Psychology Today, Article, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy, 22 May 2015.
  6. 6
    Dr Brown, Brené, "Brené Brown on Empathy", Published by The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Video, youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw, 10 Dec 2013.
  7. 7
    Sorensen, Michael S., "I Hear You - The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships", Autumn Creek Press, autumncreekpress.com, 2017.
  8. 8
    Stern, Robin, Divecha, Diana, "How to Avoid the Empathy Trap", Greater Good Magazine, Article, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_avoid_the_empathy_trap, 7 Jul 2015.
  9. 9
    Psychology Today, "Empathy", Psychology Today, Article, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy, Referenced June 2019.
  10. 10
    Thomas, Chris A., "Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy", blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/, 19 Jul 2013. Thomas has quoted: Staub, E. “Commentary on Part 1.” In Empathy and Its Development, edited by N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. 103-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  11. 11
    Featured Image Credit: Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash
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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and I’m the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.

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