How Adaptive Listening™ can bring more empathy & compassion to your work

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

Empathy and compassion have surfaced as popular buzzwords in the business community over the last two and a half years. And recently, they’ve received even more attention. Learning and development (L&D) leaders have identified empathetic communication as a top three most important soft skill when it comes to daily workplace performance. And hiring managers seek this skill in new recruits. In addition, a lack of empathy and compassion in the workplace has been a contributing factor in the great resignation.

While this focus on empathy and compassion might seem new to some, it’s always had an underlying presence here at Duarte. We like to say, “empathy is the basis for everything we do.” When we teach workshops; when we create presentation strategy, content, and visuals; and when we coach on speaking delivery, we do it with a compassionate focus on the audience. We’re continuously asking ourselves: How do we want the people receiving this information to feel?

Over the past three decades, we’ve helped hundreds of clients and trained thousands of workshop participants how to become more empathetic, strategic communicators. But in recent years, especially with the rise of remote and hybrid work, we began to realize that empathetic speaking is only one part of the equation.

We must also become empathetic listeners. Hence, Adaptive Listening™ was born. Adaptive Listening brings empathy to your workplace interactions in three ways:

  1. It makes you more equipped to deliver information that’s relevant to your audience.
  2. It focuses your attention on what the speaker wants and needs.
  3. It helps you understand listening differences across your organization.

Adaptive Listening Helps You Deliver Audience-centered Information

Ask any content developer at Duarte, and they’ll tell you that the most important thing when delivering a presentation, running a meeting, or planning an event is to put the audience first. During our client discovery meetings, we focus on uncovering how the audience currently thinks, feels, and behaves. Then, we determine how we want the audience to change.

That “Move From” exercise often stumps people. They wonder, “How am I supposed to know what my audience thinks or how they feel?” Most clients make educated guesses on their audiences’ current reality, and that’s okay. But how much more valuable would it be if you were sure?

Imagine delivering a message that resulted in head nodding—confirmation that you said exactly what the audience wanted to hear. You can only know for sure if you first listen to them. Ask them how they feel about the current processes. Ask them how they currently operate as a team. Ask them about their cultural concerns. And then listen with intention to their responses. Only then can you acknowledge those feelings and actions. Only then can you steer them in a different direction with an empathetic message and a focus on what’s in it for them.

Adaptive Listening Focuses Your Attention on What the Speaker Wants & Needs

When we walk into a room as listeners, we often wonder, “What am I going to get out of this?” Why am I at this meeting, brainstorm, workshop, or keynote? What’s the value of the content being shared? And how will this impact me and my role?

We rarely (if ever) think about how the person speaking might want to feel or what they might want from us as listeners. That speaker likely worked hard to deliver content that resonates with you. As listeners, we should offer the same empathy and compassion to the speaker.

This is why Adaptive Listening is so powerful. It invites listeners to take responsibility for their part of the two-way interaction. It’s the listener’s job to determine what the speaker needs from them—and how the speaker wants to feel. The speaker’s goals and needs might be different throughout the day, in different situations, and in different contexts. It’s challenging, but incredibility empathetic to think of your interactions in this way, because it offers some compassion back to the speaker. Communication is a two-way street, and empathetic communication can only happen if both parties participate.

Adaptive Listening Helps You Understand Differences

Listening is often thought of as off or on. People are either listening…or they’re not. While it’s true that someone might not be listening at all, Adaptive Listening recognizes listening differences.

The truth is, we don’t all listen the same way, and we all have a Default Listening Style™, the way we prefer to listen. When someone doesn’t listen in the same way we listen, it’s easy to interpret that as “not listening.” For example, if someone looks out the window while listening, we might think, “Well they’re distracted and not listening to me at all!” Or if someone simply nods their head while listening but doesn’t acknowledge our feelings with a response, we might think or even say, “Did you hear me?!”

Knowing the characteristics of others’ Default Listening Styles increases empathy and compassion for other listeners. The colleague who looks out the window while listening might actually be thinking deeply about what they’re hearing. The person nodding their head without responding might be considering how to help the speaker move forward. The coworker making an inquisitive face might not be judgmental, rather they’re evaluating the information in order to make a smart decision. When we assume good intentions and recognize each other’s listening differences, empathy and compassion result.

As communication experts, we understand it’s a journey to learn how to adapt the way you listen and change the way you communicate. But building more trusting connections at work requires deeper connections and a curiosity to understand and meet the needs of our communication partners. Adaptive Listening is a tool that can help you and your team do just that.

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