Empathy and Active Listening

In recent posts on leading by example, we covered what it means, the different ways to solicit important feedback, and how that can help you become an even better leader.  This week we focus on what to do when your feedback suggests a need to improve your listening skills.  Listening is a foundational skill for leaders.

I believe active listening and empathy are very closely related, if not one and the same.  Active listening, the ability to fully concentrate on what is being said, is one of the “soft skills” or “software” of leadership. If you aren’t naturally inclined to be an active listener, there are ways you can improve which will be discussed in the next few blog posts.

The technical or “hardware” skills of leadership such as strategic planning and executing operating plans are equally important.  As a leader you can supplement a lack of hardware skills by attracting talented staff who complement any weaknesses you may have in these areas. On the other hand, it can be difficult to compensate for a lack of soft skills.  Leaders need these skills to communicate a shared vision, influence others, network, and build trust with their customers, staff and stakeholders.

Not surprisingly, active listening is one of the most common opportunities for improvement I encounter as an Executive and Leadership Coach.  At least half of my clients say they need to improve this skill.  It is either self-identified as an opportunity or clearly identified in their 360-assessment survey.

Active listening is accomplished by focusing on the conversation.  It involves not only hearing what the other person says but observing their body language as they speak because often non-verbal communication is just as important as the spoken word. Each of us has a voice in our head that speaks to us.  If you are actively listening, you effectively turn the voice off to analyze what is happening in the moment.

What are some ways to better utilize active listening in the workplace? Create the time and opportunity to have meaningful individual or group conversations about your corporate strategy, the culture of your organization, and ad hoc visits with your staff to learn about their dreams, goals, and aspirations.

What is empathy?  Empathy is stepping into the shoes of another, making a person feel uniquely understood when you talk to them. It is a powerful way to build, improve and maintain trust with the most important people in your life. Active listening is a way to show empathy and helps to gain the trust you need in order to learn where improvements can be made in the workplace.

Empathy is important in all professions and perhaps most importantly with your family.  Remember, how you do anything is how you do everything.  If you lack empathy at work, you may be lacking empathy at home. Ask your family or loved ones what it’s like to have a conversation with you and how they feel afterward—they can be your empathy “barometers!”.

In our next discussion we’ll analyze active listening skills.  See you then!