Empathetic listening is the ability to listen, without interrupting, with compassion and understanding to the speaker’s situation and emotional mindset. Empathetic listening is a skill that stems from the empathetic and compassionate characteristics of our personality. As human beings, our unconscious has an innate ability to read visual cues and interpret one’s emotions in order to empathise with their emotional mindset accordingly.
Over time, however, it has been documented that our natural empathetic instinct has deteriorated. In 2011, a research study led by Sarah H. Konrath found that our empathy levels had been decreasing over the last 3 decades. That continues today! Whilst recent studies debate whether we are born with empathy, from a young age, we show highly empathetic tendencies. However, over time those identifying to be empathetic appear to be dwindling, rapidly.
what might be causing an empathy decline?
There is no hard evidence as such to explain why our empathy levels are on the decline. However, there are suggestions that social media activity, a lack of face-to-face socialising at younger ages and technology is playing a pivotal part in the development or lack of development of empathy.
For example, social media, even from the early times of MySpace and MSN Messenger, allows us to communicate and talk using text and ‘emoji’s’. Video communication was rarely used, and even when it was, ‘webcams’ weren’t as high-quality as cameras are today. Therefore, the ability to note facial expressions and cues decreased. This impacted our ability to understand emotion on a deeper level and empathise.
Additionally, social media has negated the needed for ‘face-to-face’ communication. Instead of showing your emotion, you ‘like’, ‘love’ and ’react’ differently to online content depending on your mood. Video and photography based social apps such as Snapchat and Instagram allow users to visually see a person’s emotion, however, a lot has been said about our personal image online versus our real image and how we stage our actions online. This blurs the lines between an honest perception of one’s emotions and a fake online perception. But we are aware of this and how social media is making us fakers!
technologies impact on empathy
technology has impacted how we interact in and outside of the digital world. There are 2.87 billion smartphone users in the world. That’s around a third of the world’s population!
Additionally, the majority of smartphone users demographically are based in metropolitan areas and cities. These bustling areas were once saturated with opportunities to engage in social interactions, however, in today’s world, our heads are stuck in our phones.
What’s the impact of this? When sat on trains, in tube stations, coffee shops or restaurants, we are rejecting the opportunity to meet and engage with others. The less we interact, so continues the decline of our empathy skills.
improving our empathy with empathetic listening skills
It’s easy to see why we might be less empathetic in the workplace as a result of changes in society over the last 30 years. In today’s workplace, we can often have tunnel vision at our desks, hardly engaging with others. As a result of technology and the vanity of social media, we can often act more self-absorbed than we might think.
This is where leadership now needs to take note of empathetic listening and the ability to put others ahead of ourselves.
By promoting empathetic listening skills, leaders have enabled themselves to lend a compassionate and sympathetic ear to their team. Additionally, this approach provides an opportunity to understand others emotions and how they react to certain workplace situations.
What this results in, is a workplace environment that feels cared for, safe and heard. In turn, this results in colleagues putting in as much as they get out. If they feel heard and listened to, they begin to trust and feel loyal to their employer, giving them more time and energy and becoming more engaged in their workloads. This becomes both a personal and business benefit!
ways to improve your empathetic listening skills
In order to empathise and understand anyone, we must first open our ears. That’s easier said than done! When conversing with others it’s easy to get excited about something that’s said and your ideas around this and interrupt mid-conversation.
The trick is to practise listening in situations and every time you interrupt you add some change to a jar. By doing so, you’ll learn to allow others to speak with clarity and get their full point across. Additionally, you’ll realise that the belief that you should communicate an opinion or advice isn’t always warranted. From this, you’ll improve your ability to know when to simply listen and nod, and when to talk.
By simply listening, you will generate more information to help benefit your overall decision making.
take note of visual cues
Once you’ve nailed the ability to listen without interruption, you can kick-start your empathetic listening skills into the next gear. This is now where the eyes come into play. The best empathetic listeners combine the power of their eyes and ears to truly understand the situation they’re in.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’ Malcolm discusses the ability to mind read using Eckman and Friesen’s decoding of facial expressions. Whilst not everyone has the emotive capabilities to mind read using facial expressions, a large proportion of us do on a subconscious level. However, that doesn’t mean we empathise! It just means we are aware of the person’s feelings in front of us.
After becoming aware take note of what expressions are made during times of passion, stress, joy, and sorrow. The more experience you have noting expressions in these situations, the better you become at subconsciously recognising and empathising with them.
taking time to process the information
Listening and watching is all well and good, but if you’re not processing the information then the process is not beneficial.
When listening, focus your mind on asking yourself ‘how would I feel if I was in this position?’, ‘how would I want my line manager to react?’ etc. Use the answers to better judge the situation and how you should react, but don’t live by them. What you may want to happen or how may feel may completely different to your peer and only using your feelings blindly like this is an arrogant approach to empathetic listening.
A leader must always be clear as to whether or not they understand the situation. Asking questions shows that you’re keen to access all the necessary information. Furthermore, you’re ensuring clarity around the discussion, allowing you to remain objective and able to develop an informed opinion.