By Stephen D. Boyd.
LISTENING is an important skill that many of us take for granted. Have you ever explained a problem to someone and received an answer that showed that he or she didn't understand the problem at all?
A big part of listening goes beyond getting the main point and drawing conclusions. Listening empathetically, or with feelings, means putting yourself in the talker's position without getting emotionally involved.
Empathic listening precedes effective feedback because it goes to the root of the concern: the other person's perspective. Listening only to obtain information and form opinions means missing much of what the speaker is saying -- the emotions and intensity that make up real communication.
For business, technical and personal problems, anything that provokes frustration or worry is emotion-laden by nature. Thus, any problem is better handled with an empathic approach. The following steps will help improve your empathic skills:
ASK OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS questions like "What makes you feel that way?" allow the talker to go in the most-comfortable direction, though not necessarily the direction you would have chosen. By giving the other person free rein, it's easier for you to get into his or her shoes.
A good habit is to ask "one more question" before giving feedback. The answer you receive gives you more context and thus a more-realistic picture of what the talker really means. Your question might be, " What other factors are involved?" or "What other elements might influence the way we handle this problem?" or "What actions have you taken so far?"
MAKE THE OTHER FEEL COMFORTABLE Charles Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic expressed it this way: "I try to imagine the kind of doctor I'd like if I were you, and try to be that doctor.
By contrast, if you look at your watch. fidget, or look anxious as the talker is relating a problem, he or she may leave out key details. If you give the other person the impression that he or she is just wasting your time, you're not likely to solve any problems. Have you ever been listening to someone who suddenly says, "I can tell this is a bad time -- we'll talk about this later?"
Instead, show the other person that the most-important thing for you at that moment is to listen. Tell your secretary to hold your calls, or close your door, or tell the talker, "Take as much time as you need." With these actions, you're more likely to get the details that go beyond the main problem and help you find solutions.
If you're the other person's superior, the other may neglect important information because of your higher rank. Therefore, show that the talker's ideas are valuable and that you really want to hear what he or she has to say.
Come out from behind your desk and sit together to create a feeling of equality and comfort. This encourages full disclosure and puts you in a more receptive frame of mind. Even pulling up a chair to the side of your desk to sit next to each other, rather than across the desk, helps reduce tension.
FIND A PERSONAL CONNECTION often, when you suddenly realize you're not on the same wavelength with someone, you're failing to empathize. If you can't understand why the talker is upset or angry, you're probably not relating well. Keep asking questions or listening until you connect. This might happen with a shared opinion or philosophy, or even an experience, hobby or background.
For example, when I found out recently that one of my seminar participants was a Hoosier, we bonded instantly because of our shared Indiana background. It's easier to settle problems when your connection goes beyond the intellect.
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK when he was a U.S. Senator, Lyndon Johnson had a plaque on his office wall that read "You ain't learning' nothing when you're talking." While you're speaking, you can't learn about the other person. To get to the heart of the matter, ask a question, and then sit back and listen.
Try to live by the 50-50 rule -- spend no more than half your communication time speaking. You develop a certain power through listening. The more the other person talks, the more information you have, and the better you can understand the needs of the talker and his or her needs.
This is especially important when one of you is not speaking his or her native tongue. If the other person speaks English as a second language, you should encourage him or her to talk as much as possible. It's likely that his or her repertoire of English phrases and idioms are unfamiliar to you.
For example, many people from the former Soviet Union and from some Asian countries learned British English. For some U.S. natives, many British expressions they know can sound completely foreign -- and sometimes even unintelligible.
KEEP ADVICE TO A MINIMUM when someone comes to you with a problem, your first response is probably to provide advice or a solution: but sometimes all the other person wants is someone to listen. If you listen before advising, you're more likely to understand first. When you have a grasp of the situation, then you can offer suggestions.
Often, if you're listening empathetically, the talker solves his or her own problem. For example, have you ever told your problems to someone who just listened? Chances are, by the time you talk your way through it, you had actually come up with your own solution. Empathic listening encourages this to happen.
WATCH OUT FOR POTENTIAL PITFALLS.
Just as an empathic approach draws people out, the wrong approach closes them up. Avoid certain signals that prevent effective communication:
DON'T TRY TO TOP THE OTHER PERSON'S PROBLEM. Empathy means understanding the other person's perspective and feelings -- not competing with those feelings. The other person's problem is not a springboard for you to recount your own similar situation. Rather, ask another question or show concern by appropriately paraphrasing the other person's experience. You're there to help: you can best do this by getting the problem out in the open to deal with it. Anything you do to shift attention back to yourself defeats this purpose.
DON'T REACT WITH AVERSION. If the other person has a mistake or unpleasant experience to relate, make him or her comfortable telling the story, however awkward. Even if you disapprove of the speaker's situation or feel turned-off, don't communicate your aversion with words or actions. Be calm and keep the person talking.
Don t say: "What a horrible thing to do." "I don't see how you lived through that." or, "I can t believe you're telling me this." Rather, use nonjudgmental, encouraging expressions that help both of you deal with the problem.
You might say: "I admire you for facing that challenge so straightforwardly." or, "l'm glad you brought this to my attention so we can work on it." In any case, don't kill the messenger.
It took courage to admit the mistake. Now it's time to find out as much as possible so you can address the problem. Your frosty or condemning reception will get you only an abridged version of the story, which ill equips you to solve the problem.
DON'T THREATEN: EMPATHIZE! Biographer Robert Massie recounts the following anecdote of Peter the Great (Russian Tsar, 1672-1725). After a suspected conspirator was tortured four times and refused to confess, Peter told the man that he had been punished enough.
He offered clemency if the prisoner would confess out of love for his sovereign. At this unexpected kindness, the man broke down and confessed. Empathic listening bears more fruit than hostility and disapproval.
from the May 1994 Annunciator.