Years ago, I came across a great book written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish titled How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. They explain how we can get our children to talk by being an empathic listener.
Empathic listening includes reflecting back the emotions we hear. So if a child tells a parent, "I hate my teacher and my school," then the parent could say, "You sound angry or upset" or reflect back any other emotion that the child is expressing. This will show that the parent understands the child, and it encourages them to share their pain and frustration.
In many organizations I've helped, I've found that communication, especially active and empathic listening, is a big challenge, particularly when it comes to business owners and high-level leaders, who are often under a lot of pressure and don’t always have the patience or the bandwidth to really listen.
As Stephen Covey wrote in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." (Full disclosure: I’m a certified 7 Habits facilitator.) However, as Covey explains, real relationships are created and real solutions are found when people are willing to listen with the intent to understand. This requires us to suspend our judgments or biases long enough to listen, understand and show that we really understand by repeating what we heard — this is what's known as active listening.
Saying things like "So if I understand you correctly" or "Let me repeat what I heard" are effective ways to show you really listened. Or if someone sounds overwhelmed or frustrated, you might say things like “You sound frustrated or overwhelmed” or "Tell me what’s going on."
Here's an example of how empathic communication solved a serious management issue: Izzy was the new and quite young CEO of a very old, established organization that was trying to build better relations with its board, senior staff and constituents. He felt that the senior staff wasn’t accepting of him and didn’t appreciate all his efforts to reinvigorate the organization. The yearly fundraiser was a big event, and Izzy put in serious time and effort to raise the necessary funding. The event was successful beyond expectations, and he was awaiting a lot of compliments and kudos for his hard work and great success.
However, he became very discouraged, as he felt that the most senior person and the rest of the team, who did the fundraising before him, were undermining all of his efforts. He complained that they didn’t show him any appreciation and barely acknowledged his accomplishments. They, on their part, felt that Izzy had disregarded their previous contributions when he failed to thank or even mention some key members of the team in his opening address at the dinner.
When I conveyed their complaints back to Izzy, he acknowledged his mistake and made a feeble attempt to rectify it, but it was too little, too late. Their relationships became more acrimonious, and it got to the point that the CEO and the staff members were communicating only by email.
When I asked Izzy whether he'd ever shared his feelings with the team, his answer was: "They’re really not interested in hearing what I have to say. They're just interested in knocking me to the rest of the staff and to the board." Interestingly enough, that's exactly what the team was saying about him.
While the board took responsibility for not clarifying Izzy's and the team's responsibilities, that on its own didn't rectify the problem. After training Izzy and the team in both active and empathic listening, I asked Izzy and the most senior team member to sit down together and really use the listening skill set.
When Izzy said he felt undermined and even hurt, the senior team member was apologetic and sincerely said that it was never his intention to undermine or hurt him. He said he just felt that Izzy wasn’t appreciative of all his previous hard work and that he really wanted to get along.
By communicating empathically with each other and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, they allowed real open and honest communication to ensue. While it didn’t make them best friends, it allowed them to suspend judgment, listen to each other and show understanding, which had a positive impact on both parties. We were then able to create a workable relationship and a plan that was implemented to the satisfaction of both the staff and the board.
Someone once said that "listening is like oxygen to the other person." It fills them with energy, and it shows that you care. Try it, and let me know how it works.
Some people tell me that they’re afraid that listening will give the message that they agree with the other person. However, when you say "I hear you" or "I understand you," it doesn’t mean you agree. It just shows that you heard and understood. You can then respectfully disagree. Just remember, while you’re allowed to disagree, you don't want to become disagreeable.