Empathy is an increasingly important leadership skill in today’s challenging business landscape.
According to research by Business Solver, 76% of employees said an empathetic workplace inspired motivation in 2020 — up from 65% in 2019. Yet only 48% of them believe their company is empathetic as a whole.
So how can executives lead with more empathy? One way is through empathic listening.
Empathic listening is an essential listening skill for effective communication and a core component of being an empathic leader.
So let’s take a deep dive into how empathic listening can make you a more effective leader and look at techniques for developing your empathic listening skills.
What is empathy, and why is it important?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings or emotions. There are two types of empathy — affective empathy and cognitive empathy.
Affective empathy is the ability to feel the emotions of others. Highly sensitive people — or HSPs — often feel other people’s emotions as though they were their own.
Even if you’re not an HSP yourself, you probably know someone who is. It’s that person in your life who always cries over a particularly moving advert or a beautiful sunset.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and have compassion for the emotions of others without experiencing them.
The classic example of this is the therapist who can understand a client’s distress on a mental level but does not engage emotionally.
Empathy is an essential skill for leaders because understanding emotions can help you find the most appropriate solution or approach to a situation or problem.
What are the different types of listening?
The way we listen depends on what we’re listening to and the reason or intention for listening to it. There are four main types of listening.
Let’s take a look at each in detail and the kind of situations we use them in.
1. Appreciative listening
Appreciative listening is the act of listening to something for enjoyment. Examples of appreciative listening include:
- Motivational speeches
2. Comprehensive listening
Comprehensive listening is the act of listening with the intention of understanding or learning something new. Examples include listening during a training session, TED talk, or lecture.
This type of listening usually requires active participation in the process, such as taking notes to remember the most important points of a speech.
This makes it more demanding than other types of listening since you must listen while synthesizing the points in your notes. However, practicing this type of listening can strengthen your overall listening skills.
3. Critical listening
When practicing critical listening, you use your critical thinking skills to analyze and evaluate the presented information.
For example, suppose you have to make an important decision regarding your budget. In that case, you will listen closely to financial analysts and other stakeholders as they share their opinions on the best strategy.
Based on the information provided, you will use your critical thinking skills to make a decision.
4. Empathic listening
Empathic listening is the most effective listening technique for understanding a person’s behavior, emotions, and motives.
Emotion drives everything we do and say, so empathic listening seeks to understand the emotions behind the action.
It means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes so you can see the situation from their perspective. So let’s take a closer look at empathic listening.
What is empathic listening?
Empathic listening is a technique of inquiry and listening that aims to understand the emotions and rationale behind a person’s behavior or opinions.
When using empathic listening, you focus 100% of your attention on the person speaking and leave aside your prejudices and judgments.
Empathic listeners understand that we are all different and that our unique experiences shape our worldview and how we react to different situations.
Empathic listening is similar to active listening, but it goes a step further. Empathic listening can take your communication skills to a whole new level.
It can also make your employees feel seen, heard, and understood. They will feel that you care about them and take their problems and well-being seriously.
This will make them less defensive and more open, cooperative, motivated, and willing to look for possible solutions.
What are the 4 stages of empathic listening?
If you’re ready to become a more empathic listener, you must first understand the process. There are four stages of empathic listening, as follows.
1. Mimic content
This is the process of repeating the person’s words back to them, using language as close as possible to what you’ve heard.
For example, suppose a team member has been underperforming at work and confides in you that it’s because they are going through a nasty divorce.
In that case, you might say something like: “I understand that the divorce is affecting your ability to cope with your workload. Is that correct?”
2. Rephrase content
At this stage, you rephrase what the person has said in your own words. In this case, you might say something like: “Your ex-husband’s behavior is causing you stress, which is affecting your concentration and energy levels. Am I right?”
3. Reflect emotion
This is where you flex your empathy muscles. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel if you were them.
Also, watch their non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions. For example, a clenched jaw and fists can signify anger, while slouching and looking down could indicate sadness.
Reflect back the emotions you perceive by saying something like: “You seem overwhelmed and exhausted. Would that be a fair assessment?”
4. Mirror back
Mirroring back is the process of reflecting both the content and the emotion a person has expressed, together with your analysis as an outsider.
This stage is about checking that you fully understand what the other person is saying.
Be tentative as you summarize — don’t assume you’ve understood as there is still a margin for error. Check with them that your analysis is correct and give them time to respond before proceeding.
Try something like, “it seems like the stress of the job combined with the stress of the divorce is burning you out. Does that sound right?”
This is a technique that many coaches use. It’s effective because it helps the person work through their thoughts and feelings to arrive at valuable insights.
8 benefits of empathic listening
According to Business Solver, workplace empathy drives business growth through motivation and productivity.
Let’s take a more detailed look at eight of the main benefits of empathic listening and how it can help your business.
1. Empathic listening builds trust
Empathic listening is an active listening technique that requires looking at the person’s non-verbal cues and reading between the lines to understand what they really think and feel.
When an employee feels understood, it increases their trust in you. It’s essential for leaders to have the trust of their teams, as this increases productivity and employee engagement.
2. Empathic listening improves problem-solving
When you use empathic listening, you intend to get to the heart of the matter. Having a full understanding of the situation can help you see what the real problem is. This will allow you to find the most appropriate solution.
Without empathic listening, you may gloss over key details and look for solutions that don’t fully address the problem.
3. Empathic listening helps you make better decisions
Similarly, empathic listening can improve your decision-making. Leaders often make the mistake of undervaluing the input and opinions of their employees.
But considering their perspective can help you see things you might otherwise be blind to and make better decisions for both your employees and the organization.
4. Empathic listening increases team coherence
Creating a work environment where employees feel seen and heard encourages empathic listening and contributes to building greater team coherence.
Leading by example with empathic listening can create a company culture of empathy, trust, and cooperation.
5. Empathic listening boosts employee well-being
When employees feel seen and understood by their boss or company, it contributes to greater well-being. This can help reduce the risk of burnout, which reduces sick days and employee turnover.
It can also boost your team’s confidence, which helps them perform better in their jobs.
6. Empathic listening increases productivity
Improved employee well-being has a knock-on effect on productivity. Happy team members are more productive, and there are also fewer losses due to less absenteeism and burnout.
7. Empathic listening improves customer service
Leaders who use empathic listening create a more empathic workplace culture. If employees feel misunderstood and resentful, they’re more likely to pass their bad moods on to customers.
When employees feel seen, heard, and understood, they are more empathetic toward their customers, which leads to better customer service.
8. Empathic listening can defuse a conflict situation
In a conflict situation, at least one of the parties feels misunderstood (often, it’s both). As a leader, stepping in and listening empathically to both sides is one of the best ways to defuse tensions.
If you’re the one who’s in conflict, see if you can take a moment to let go of your side of the argument and just listen to what the other person is saying. You will probably notice that they quickly calm down, making it easier to find a resolution.
What are the qualities of an empathic listener?
Empathic listeners are easy to spot. They exude quiet, calm patience. They avoid getting caught up in emotions and focus on facts and narratives.
They’re the person in the office everyone turns to when they need support — whether they occupy an official leadership role or not.
You can become a more empathic listener by cultivating the following six qualities.
An empathic listener is aware of their own emotional responses and avoids getting drawn into other people’s emotions.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses can help you become a better communicator. For example, if you know listening is a weakness of yours, you can practice becoming a better listener.
To be mindful simply means to be present and aware of what is going on in front of you, rather than being lost in your own thoughts.
We tend to think about what we want to say next rather than really listening. An effective listener knows how to tune out the voice of their own mind and be fully present with the person speaking.
Empathic listeners give the other person time to speak without interrupting. Paying attention to your own thoughts and waiting for your turn to speak can lead to selective listening — only hearing what you want to hear.
People often need time to find a way to express themselves. Empathic listeners know this and give them all the time they need without interruption.
People confide in empathic listeners because they know they are trustworthy.
Leaders who use empathic listening know that the trust of their employees is sacred, and they would never break it. They keep everything confidential unless asked to share by the concerned party.
Being an empathic listener means being able to relate to the person’s feelings through the prism of your own experience.
This enables you to share reflections and lessons learned from your own past to help the person deal with their problem.
Empathic listening means listening without judgment. It can be all-too-easy to make assumptions and judgments — but that’s the opposite of being empathic.
Being an empathic listener means seeking to understand the motives and emotions of the person without passing judgments based on your own values or experiences.
How to become a more empathic listener
Use these five empathic listening practices to develop your skills as an empathic listener and win the trust of your team.
1. Let your employees know you’re there to help them
If someone is not performing their job adequately, it can be tempting to blame them for it. But an empathic listener knows there’s probably a reason for the employee’s poor performance.
So, instead of blaming, ask them if they need help. This helps the employee let their defenses down and open up about what’s really going on.
Asking if something is wrong can make people defensive. By offering help, you let them know they’re in a safe space and can let their guard down.
Create a safe space that will encourage them to talk to you. Consider adding office hours when employees can come to you with their problems or concerns.
2. Listen to what they say (and what they don’t)
Use the active listening techniques listed above to understand and reflect their words back to them.
Rephrase their comments as questions to encourage them to give further details. Pay attention to their body language and what they don’t say, as well as what they do. Avoid interrupting and allow them to speak until they’re ready to stop.
3. Keep your emotions out of it
It’s easy to get sucked into the emotions of others, especially if you’re naturally sensitive or empathic.
We instinctively feel that aligning with someone’s emotions helps them, but the opposite is true.
For example, if an employee is upset about something that has happened with a coworker, involving yourself in their emotions might make you take their side.
This will make it more difficult to stay neutral and listen empathically to the other person involved. To be an empathic listener, don’t get emotionally involved.
4. Offer support
If you discover that your employee’s poor performance is due to difficulties in their personal life — for example, a divorce or a sick parent — ask how you can support them.
For example, you could offer to lighten their workload by reassigning some of their tasks to other colleagues. If your company offers a counseling service, encourage your employee to use it, or offer to refer them.
5. Keep it confidential
Confidentiality is key for gaining and maintaining the trust of your employees. Their trust in you will help them overcome their problem more quickly and keep them motivated and committed to you as a leader, the team, and the company.
Empathic listening techniques
Use the following three empathetic listening techniques next time you’re dealing with a team member to improve your empathic listening skills.
1. Use your emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is being increasingly recognized as a core management skill. It helps you make better decisions, improves your problem-solving skills, and increases your empathy.
2. Use open-ended questions
Open-ended questions encourage reflection and detailed answers. Some examples of open-ended questions include:
- “How does that make you feel?”
- “What would you need to feel differently about the situation?”
- “What can I do to support you right now?”
3. Let them know you understand them
Use phrases and questions such as:
- “Thank you for sharing that.”
- “That must have been very hard for you.”
- “I can understand why you feel that way.”
- “I can see why that would be frustrating for you.”
- “Tell me more about …”
- “I’ve had a similar experience.”
Empathic listening makes leaders more effective
Learning to be an empathic listener can make you a more trustworthy leader, motivate your team, increase employee engagement, boost productivity, and reduce employee turnover.
It can also help you make better decisions and resolve conflicts within your team.
And if you want to develop your leadership and empathic listening skills further, check out Pareto Labs’ team management course.