If You Want To Be An Empathic Listener, Stop Using This Word
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Listening with empathy is a critical skill for anyone who wants to succeed at work. Salespeople with great listening skills sell more. Physicians with great listening skills face fewer malpractice lawsuits and have better patient outcomes. Leaders with great listening skills have more inspired and engaged employees.
One of my studies, called How To Build Trust In The Workplace, surveyed more than 7,000 people and discovered that approximately 32% of a worker’s loyalty is the result of feeling trust towards their boss. And the number one driver of that trust was whether or not they felt that their boss responded constructively when they shared their work problems. In other words, empathic listening.
Unfortunately, not everyone really knows how to listen empathically. We’ve all heard of the old active listening approach, but most people think that means nodding along and occasionally mumbling ‘sure’ or ‘right.’ And that’s not really much help.
Alternatively, some people think that listening with empathy means sharing their own experiences to validate the other person. Here’s an example:
Imagine that you have a friend that works at a company that is going through a very tough financial situation and layoffs. It’s very stressful for them. You have a conversation with them and your friend says: “I’m probably going to get an ulcer from all this stress.”
You reply: “You know what? I find that enduring these kinds of really tough situations can be great chances for us to grow.”
Is your response empathic or not empathic?
This is an actual question from the online quiz “Do You Listen With Empathy?” And after analyzing several thousand responses we know that currently, more than 40% of people think that the above response is empathic. But unfortunately, they’re wrong; this response is Not Empathic.
Now, before I highlight the one word that really ruins this response, let's look at the larger picture. This response, “I find that enduring these kinds of really tough situations can be great chances for us to grow,” is not empathic because it’s a veiled form of advice. It tells our friend that we know better than they do what their next steps should be. They shouldn’t be feeling stressed, they should be viewing this as a growth opportunity. After all, I would see it as a growth opportunity, and I’m pretty amazing, so you should follow my advice and also see it as a growth opportunity.
Now, it may be the case that our friend does need to see this stress as a growth opportunity; maybe that would be better for them in the long run. But our friend isn’t ready to hear that. What they want is someone to truly hear them, to appreciate and understand their struggle. They want empathy.
If they wanted a swift kick in the posterior, or prescriptive advice, they would have said “I need someone to shake me out of this funk” or something similar. But that’s not what they said; they just expressed their stress. And when you hear that, it means this person wants empathy.
Have you ever brought a problem to your boss without wanting them to solve it for you? A time when you just wanted a sounding board? Or someone to hear your concerns without shoving an answer down your throat? Of course, we’ve all done that. And that’s similar to what our friend has done with sharing their stress. They’re not looking for an easy fix, they’re looking to be heard.
So now, let's tackle the worst word in the response. If you want to be a truly empathic listener, get rid of any phrases from your lexicon that begin with “I.” This includes “I find,” “I do,” “I like to,” and “I always.” Each of those phrases takes the focus away from the speaker and puts it onto us.
“I” is a tricky word in general, and it’s a good idea to be mindful of how often we use it, especially when we’re listening to someone else. When listening to someone (a friend, boss, colleague, etc.) we want the focus to stay on them and whatever they’ve chosen to share with us. But as soon as we say “I did” we’re essentially telling them two things: First, that whatever you just shared isn’t really holding my attention so I’d much rather listen to me talk about myself.
And second, it tells our conversation partner that we’ve already got their problem figured out for them. In fact, it subtly tells them that they’re somewhat dumb for not having already figured out the solution that we’ve developed.
When we listen empathically we’re focusing our attention on the person who’s talking; we’re focused on climbing inside their head and seeing the world as they see it. When we do that, not only do we understand this person much more but their trust in us only grows.
Just remember that the number one driver of whether an employee will trust their boss is whether their boss responds constructively when they share their work problems. That means appreciating and understanding their struggle, or more simply, empathic listening.
Mark Murphy is the author of Truth At Work: The Science Of Delivering Tough Messages, Hiring For Attitude and Hundred Percenters.