Empathetic listening: An important first step

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

Over the last several years, empathetic communication has received a lot of attention, and this executive speaker coach is delighted to see that trend! Being a strong communicator is important, especially if you’re a leader or an emerging leader. But projecting warmth and compassion is equally important. That’s why …

It’s refreshing to see empathy get the attention it deserves in the workplace. But much of the push for empathetic communication focuses on one side of the communication equation: speaking.

What about empathetic listening? Isn’t it also important to consider the emotions of the people speaking to you? Before delving into what empathetic listening is and how to do it, let’s take a step back – for the emotional skeptics out there – and talk about why paying attention to others’ emotions matters at work.


Why emotions matter in the workplace

Some people think emotions have no place at work. After all, we’re employed to get a job done, not spend hours talking about our feelings, right? That’s an understandable perspective. Your team and organization have business objectives to tackle, and goals to meet. Taking time to consider and acknowledge everyone’s emotions might pull focus from the tasks you’re getting paid to complete.

But the fact is, everyone brings emotions to work. People aren’t robots. They have feelings about:

  • Their work
  • What’s going on at home
  • And what’s happening in the world around them

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean emotions prevent people from getting their jobs done. Plus, if you ignore or avoid emotions, you’re missing an opportunity to build trusted relationships that can help you accomplish your professional ambitions and have a more enjoyable workday.

So, the idea of approaching our communication with empathy, listening included, is a smart one. Not only for our workplace relationships, but for the sake of business success. So, what’s the best way to be an empathetic listener?


What is empathetic listening?

Like active listening, empathetic listening is a term that gets thrown around a lot. In fact, a Google search on “empathetic listening” offers over 43 million results with varying definitions and techniques.

In many cases, active and empathetic listening are used interchangeably. That makes sense given that Carl R. Rogers, one of the founders of active listening, is said to have developed empathetic listening (also referred to as empathic listening), too.

The two models have a lot in common. Both ask listeners to give the other person their full attention in order to understand what’s being said. But empathetic listening takes active listening one step further. It asks the listener to focus on understanding both the content of what’s being said and the other person’s emotions.

While understanding both message and emotion is a great starting point, it’s still not enough. Imagine your CEO is delivering an important talk to the entire organization and you walk away thinking … great! I understood what she said and how she feels. But what she really wanted you to do was generate ideas based on her vision. If you don’t listen to move things forward, you might end up disappointing your CEO.

Or imagine your direct report approached you with a problem that needed solving. You need to listen to understand their problem and their feelings, sure. But don’t you also need to listen to evaluate the problem? Might you also need to listen to help your direct report outline different paths to fix that problem?

There are situations at work when listening to understand is not enough. How do we know? Maegan Stephens and I spent three years researching existing listening models in the workplace…and then we developed a better one: Adaptive Listening™. First a workshop and now a book available for pre-order!


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The Adaptive Listening difference: Beyond understanding

Listening to simply understand isn’t always enough at work, even if you focus on understanding both the message and the emotions of the person speaking, as empathetic listening requires. In addition to understanding, listening is also sometimes about uncovering next steps and taking action. It’s sometimes about evaluating or judging the information so you can weigh the pros and cons. Sometimes it’s about giving space for the other person to vent their frustrations. And sometimes it’s about remembering all the details. Adaptive Listening goes beyond understanding and by doing so, brings empathy to workplace interactions in two major ways:

  • 1. It focuses your attention on what the speaker needs in that moment
  • 2. It helps you understand listening differences across your organization


Empathetic listening: Give the speaker what they need

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 can offer the same empathy and compassion to the speaker. Because empathetic listening is focused on understanding the emotions of others, it’s a good start on the path to empathy. But it doesn’t account for the nuances of a hectic, fast-paced workday, nor does it offer memorable, actionable models that listeners can use to incorporate empathy into their listening.

Adaptive Listening offers both. It was purpose-build for the workplace and the methodology offers specific guidelines on how to be a more empathetic listener across a variety of workplace interactions. Here’s the thing:

  • It focuses your attention on what the speaker needs in that moment
  • It helps you understand listening differences across your organization

There is no one right way to be an empathetic listener.

Adaptive Listening acknowledges this fact and encourages listeners to ask themselves this critical question:

“What does the speaker need from me in this moment?” The answer will vary depending on who you’re speaking to and the context of the situation. But ultimately, you’ll determine that the speaker needs you to:

  • Listen to Support™
  • Listen to Advance™
  • Listen to Immerse™
  • Listen to Discern™

We call these the S.A.I.D. Listening Goals™. After all, you’ll be listening to what the speaker says (and even what they don’t say) to give them what they need. Each one of these Listening Goals is empathetic. Your challenge as a listener is to determine what they need, both from a business perspective and emotionally. Now THAT’S empathetic!


Adaptive Listening: Helps you understand listening differences

Being an empathetic listener to the person speaking is an obvious benefit of Adaptive Listening. But here’s one more benefit that’s equally important. Adaptive Listening helps you become more empathetic to other listeners.

Some people think of listening in a very polarized way, like an on and off switch. People either listen well or listen poorly. They’re either listening or they’re not listening. While it’s true that someone might not be listening at all, Adaptive Listening recognizes that the more likely culprit is listening differences.

The truth is, we don’t all listen the same way. We all have a S.A.I.D. Listening Style™, the way we prefer to process and respond to information. The S.A.I.D. Listening Styles are easy to remember because they mirror the S.A.I.D. Listening Goals. By default, you’re either a/an:

  • Support Listener™
  • Advance Listener™
  • Immerse Listener™
  • Discern Listener™

Or a combination of two or more styles. Each has benefits and cautions and no one style is better than another. In fact, we need all S.A.I.D. Listening Styles in our organizations. But those differences can cause tension.

When someone doesn’t listen in the same way you listen, it’s easy to interpret that as “not listening.” For example, if someone looks out the window while listening, you might think, “They’re distracted and not listening to me at all!” Or if someone simply nods their head while listening but doesn’t acknowledge your feelings with a verbal response, you might think or even say, “Did you hear me?!”

Knowing the characteristics of others’ S.A.I.D. 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, but rather, they’re evaluating the information in order to make a smart decision

When you assume good intentions and recognize listening differences, empathy and compassion result.

As a communication expert, I understand that learning to adapt the way you listen and improve your communication is a lifelong journey. But building more empathetic connections at work requires more than active listening and empathetic listening. It goes beyond understanding their thoughts and emotions, or just improving your listening skills. To be a truly empathetic listener, you need to meet the needs of the person speaking to you and you must build a tolerance for listening differences. Adaptive Listening can help you and your team do both.


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About the authors

Nicole Lowenbraun, M.S., CCC-SLP
Nicole is a communication nerd who uses her unique speech-language pathology background – and decades of business acumen – to help clients excel in speaking, writing, and listening. With a Master’s in Communication Disorders, Nicole is passionate about fostering more inclusive communication in the workplace. She’s a Content Director at Duarte, Inc. and the proud co-creator of Adaptive Listening™ – the new gold standard for listening in the workplace.

Maegan Stephens, Ph.D.
Maegan started earning her “10,000 hours” back when she was a competitive public-speaker in high school and college (yes, that’s a thing). From there, she sharpened her research skills with a PhD in Communication Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. She is the co-creator of the Adaptive Listening™ methodology and currently leads a team of Duarte, Inc. strategists, writers, and speaker coaches to transform the way people communicate.

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