Active Listening Tips: Empathy First

Are you a great listener?  Consider this question: how do you respond to a friend or colleague’s disappointment?

When a colleague has a big sales meeting canceled; when a friend’s marital or valued personal relationship is dissolving; when someone you care about receives a scary medical diagnosis; when a friend realizes they must absorb an unexpected financial loss; when someone loses a loved one; when a long-desired promotion does not come through; when a long-time business client fails to renew; when an application for college gets denied; or when a friend has to say goodbye to a beloved pet.  As different in scope and intensity as all the above may be, all engender sadness and a sense of loss.

It is at those early stages of absorbing such news that we all too often mistakenly show up and adopt the role of either coach or cheerleader.  The coach in us will quickly offer advice as to what your friend needs to do right now to handle the situation properly: problem solving!  The cheerleader in us will offer encouragement to look on the bright side – usually taking the form of assuring your friend that things will be better soon and, “If anyone can overcome this, it’s you!”

What so many of us miss is the understanding that when humans receive shockingly bad, disheartening news, the immediate need is often neither advice nor encouragement, but empathy.

Friends and colleagues will indeed genuinely seek your advice and welcome your encouragement, but often only after a period of absorption, i.e., time to absorb the new reality and deal with intense emotions like anger, deep sadness, and fear.  During this early stage they benefit greatly from a good friend or colleague who will listen empathetically and identify with how they must be feeling.  At this early stage, often the best thing you can do is to slow down, consider the loss and emotions your friend/colleague is feeling, and openly express just how lousy the situation is.  Down the road, coaching and cheerleading may well have their place, but – timing really can be everything.

My father, an outstanding educator and school administrator, often reminded his teaching staff that kids won’t care what you know until they know that you care.  It is a good reminder when we are wanting to be there for friends, family members, or colleagues who are dealing with disappointment or sorrow.  We should not focus so much on showing them how much we know or selling them on how sunny the future will be, but rather on how much we grasp, and regret, the pain they are feeling.

MindSet spends a good amount of time with our clients stressing the importance of, and again teaching, great active listening skills.  This is no small matter as there exists a good amount of data that shows an unfortunate inverse relationship between the height of one’s title and the quality of our listening!

What’s in it for you?  Improving your active listening skills can have a big impact on the strength of your relationships, the quality of your decision making, and the health of your workplace culture.

Want more active listening tips?  Consider joining our upcoming MindSet Leadership Series where we tackle active listening advice and dozens of other skills and tools to grow your leadership skills and to strengthen your organization’s culture.