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Listen With Empathy – The Number One Goal of Good Listening

I often hear people refer to the act of listening in terms of mechanics - staying focused, asking the right questions, not interrupting, and the like. While these are important, they are only part of the story. Lack of context forces us to consciously figure out on the fly, which of these listening techniques to use. An impossible task! And so we revert to our old habits. However, knowing that the overarching goal is to listen with empathy makes the task much easier. We begin to use the most appropriate listening techniques intuitively.

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Here’s a thought. What’s your goal each time you listen during a conversation? Be honest.

Obviously, our aims for conversing with others differ greatly with context. Compare, for example, your conversational aims in social gatherings, daily family life, business negotiations, and conflict resolution. But what about in the moments when we’re actually listening?

I believe that there is just one listening goal. We're seeking to understand the speaker.

"There's just one listening goal. We're seeking to understand the speaker." Andrew Ward

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This may sound like a no-brainer. But for myself, I know that I'm often more intent on trying to get other people to understand me. Unfortunately, this self-absorbed focus prevents me from truly understanding the message that they are trying to convey. And ultimately, it also hinders us from achieving those broader conversational aims.

Let's explore two key aspects of understanding the speaker.

Listen For Total Meaning

The first key aspect is to realise that the speaker’s message is composed of more than just the literal meaning of the words spoken.

In 1957 Dr. Carl Rogers and graduate student Richard Farson jointly published the original, pioneering article on Active Listening. In that article they pointed out that:

Any message a person tries to get across usually has two components: the content of the message and the feeling or attitude underlying this content.” [1]

Take as an example, my work as an electrical engineer. It's mostly project-based. I finish one project and move onto the next. Let's suppose that I report to my team leader, “That design project is finished.” One obvious interpretation is that I'm indicating my readiness to start another project.

But what if I grumped, “That design project is finished.” The literal content is the same. But the disgruntled attitude conveys an entirely different meaning! My team leader would possibly begin thinking that a problem needs addressing before they can give me the next project. 

Understanding the Content

Drawing meaning from the content is relatively straightforward. In the example above, the literal meaning is simply that "the project has been completed." Typically, verbal cues help us to identify the content's meaning. Here are a few:

  • The number of times the speaker tells you the same thing and the different ways they express it. These repeated words and phrases signal key information.
  • Common themes running through the speaker’s message. These suggest concepts that are important to the speaker.
  • The way in which their message fits into the wider context of the situation they’re discussing, such as assumed background knowledge.
  • Highly specific statements or requests. As an engineer for example,  stakeholders are often very specific about desired project outcomes, and about functionality and operating conditions that must be incorporated into their product or service.
  • Sometimes the more important cue is what is not said. Is the speaker omitting any information that you think is important? In this case, asking a few questions can help reveal whether that information is simply not important to the speaker, or whether there's another reason for withholding it.

Interpreting Underlying Feelings and Attitudes

Underlying feelings and attitudes however,  can be more easily misinterpreted because they are expressed by non-verbal behaviour. Here are some common cues that we use to express our feelings and attitudes: gestures, facial expressions, abnormal silence, posture, tone of voice, volume, rate of speech.  

A simple, yet highly effective method of testing your understanding / interpretation is to ‘reflect’ these feelings and attitudes.

Reflect the speaker's feelings by first taking note of these non-verbal cues. Secondly, verbally describe what you're seeing to the speaker when they pause. Then follow up with a clarifying question or statement.

Here’s how you might reflect the feelings that you’re seeing.

  • "You look [enthusiastic, passionate, motivated, excited]. What’s up?"
  • “It sounds like you’re [frustrated, bored] with [this project]. Help me understand why.”
  • “You hesitated. Why is that?”

Don't be afraid of misinterpreting their cues. You’ll be okay if you phrase your observations as suggestions (“It sounds like you’re irritated”) rather than as dogmatic statements (“I see you’re irritable”). The speaker will usually correct you by verbalising what they’re truly feeling if you did misunderstand them (“Actually, I’m just exhausted. I didn't get any sleep. My puppy whimpered all night.”)

Tips:

  • Be careful not to reflect unconscious mannerisms. That could be embarrassing to them... and you!
  • One time when reflecting feelings is not a good strategy, is during arguments with a spouse or significant other. Brace yourself if you choose to say something like, “You sound annoyed. Why is that?” 

Summary - Listen For Total Meaning

  • Pay attention to both the content and underlying feelings.
  • Verbal cues help us interpret the content of the speaker's message.
  • Non-verbal cues point to underlying feelings and attitudes.
  • 'Reflect' relevant feelings and attitudes to test your understanding.

Empathic Listen

The second key aspect is to listen with empathy. To comprehend the total meaning of what we're being told, we must be able to empathise with the other person.

One aspect of empathy is seeing the discussion topic from the speaker's perspective.  That is, we have empathy when we're identifying with and understanding their emotions. [2]  Sometimes this is called ‘perspective taking’ or ‘cognitive empathy’.

As the listener, our goal is to imagine that we are the speaker in their situation, not us in their situation. [3]

To me, culture is a perfect example. We often try to imagine what a culture is like as an outside observer, using our own worldview. Empathy however, is understanding a culture by imagining ourselves as someone who has grown up inside that culture with their worldview.

Achieving the speaker's insider perspective is much harder than defaulting to our outsider perspective. But making the effort to listen with empathy reaps big rewards in terms of appreciating their aspirations, struggles, and needs.

Note however, that understanding somebody’s perspective doesn't mean needing to agree with them. If you disagree with something said, firstly withhold judgement and seek to understand their perspective. Then share why you disagree.

How to Listen With Empathy

Here are some tips for putting yourself completely in the shoes of the other person:

  • Just listen. Don’t talk or interrupt except to ask questions. Once you can empathise - that is, understand their perspective - then you can share your views.
  • Keep an open-mind. Empathy requires listening without judgement. Let go of preconceived ideas of what they believe and feel. Prepare to be continually surprised!
  • Temporarily suspend opinions and feelings about the topic so that you can truly hear what the speaker is saying. It’s very easy to subconsciously pounce on statements, out-of-context, in order to confirm our beliefs and disregard their intended message (aka confirmation bias).
  • Clarify when you catch yourself jumping to conclusions. Ask the following: “Hang on a minute, I heard you say [their statement word for word]. I’m stuck. Help me to understand what you mean by that?”
  • If you’re a feelings-type person, attempting to imagine how they are feeling can help. Feel their sadness. Celebrate in the joy they share. Relate to any confided fears.
  • 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 their feelings and then follow-up with a question to further explore their true message and feelings:
    “You sound [concerned] about service plan K. What’s specifically concerning you?”
    Or,
    “You seem [upset, excited, passionate] by the culture in the team. Tell me more.”

Empathy Can Be Risky

However, there's a big "But" with empathy.

To successfully listen with empathy, we must let our viewpoints be challenged (remember, no speaking or interrupting, even if you disagree). Because of this, Rogers and Farson stress that empathising carries a strong element of personal risk. In seeking to see the world through the eyes of another - to sense their feelings and to grasp the importance of their experiences to them - we risk changing our own worldview. This requires a great deal of inner security and courage. [1]

Summary - Empathic Listening

  • Aim to see the discussion topic from the speaker's perspective. Imagine that you are the speaker in their situation.
  • To listen with empathy doesn't mean needing to agree with the speaker's view.
  • Talk only to ask questions and to reflect feelings.
  • Keep an open-mind.
  • Be willing to let your viewpoints be challenged and even changed.

Our Goal As Listeners

Knowing that our goal is to listen with empathy makes listening more intentional and intuitive. Instead of drifting aimlessly through the conversation, our focus shifts from ourselves to the other person. We engage proactively with their message, rather than passively allowing their words to wash past us. And using the most appropriate listening technique in response to what they’re saying becomes automatic. 

Empathic listening will look different depending on the type of conversation. But the essence is the same. We’re listening in order to understand the total meaning of speaker’s message - the content, and feelings and attitudes - from their perspective.

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

Make Listening Fashionable!
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About the Author

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

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