Listening and empathy – defined as the ability to understand and share others’ feelings –
go a long way towards building healthy friendships and romantic relationships. But it may surprise you to learn that these skills are of equal value in the boardroom and business community as well. As you might imagine, a variety of common office activities – managing, negotiating, selling, etc. – become far simpler when you can picture others’ feelings and perspectives, gain greater insight into their decision-making process, and find additional areas to build bridges around common ground. As a result, leaders hoping to succeed in tomorrow’s working world would do well to listen more actively, and purposefully seek to empathize with where workers are coming from.
Ironically though, as intuitive as the concept may seem, working professionals often default to operating utilizing a more counterproductive approach – one that’s far less empathetic. For example, bestselling author and emotional intelligence researcher Brené Brown talks about a common assumption that we frequently tend to make on the job, and the negative angle from which we tend to approach scenarios. “The most compassionate people… assume that other people are doing the best they can,” she argues. “[Instead, like many executives] I lived the opposite way: I assumed that people weren’t doing their best, so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed.” Simply put, our own biases tend to make interactions with others more needlessly difficult, whereas purposefully coming to each interaction with an open mind, exercising greater understanding and kindness, and truly hearing where others are coming from can help us communicate more effectively and solve challenges with less effort.
This paradox is common in personal relationships, but often compounds for working professionals who bring personal biases into the workplace. As a leader or someone in a position of power, it’s far easier to judge someone under your guidance, or jump to conclusions about their concerns and motivations. But when others feel that their voices are going unheard, and needs unmet, it bears remembering. They’ll be far less likely to provide us with the information we need to get a fully-informed perspective and all the given facts on any scenario and make good decisions – and far less likely to speak up for fear of judgement, rejection, or even penalty. Case in point: Picture an executive who asks to have an “honest conversation” with a subordinate regarding certain challenges that have arisen on the job. It may feel liberating to the executive, but would likely feel like a high-risk, minimal-gain opportunity to their associate. Doubly if the executive in question wasn’t perceived as being genuine and empathetic or didn’t afford their colleague the freedom (and ability to speak without fear of reprisal) that’s needed to place their thoughts and feelings on matters at-hand in context.
The lesson for leaders being as follows: The higher your job in the organizational hierarchy, the more likely it is you’re leaping to conclusions or currently tuning out coworkers, and the more urgent a job it becomes for you to create a culture that facilitates ongoing trust and open communication. To truly listen, you can’t assume you already have the answer to any given problem, let alone all the facts – or are seeing it from the most helpful perspective. Instead, you need to start every fact-finding or problem-solving mission from zero, learning as you go, and providing room to hear what others are saying and room to impartially assess scenarios, as well as space for the discussion to naturally grow.
University of Southern California Walter Annenberg Chair of Communication Ernest J. Wilson III calls this area the “third space.” In working with tech-focused leaders, he says the emphasis, naturally, for these executives is often on mastering technology as well as enhancing business acumen. But Wilson, along with his colleagues at USC, discovered that mastering these concepts can only take leaders so far without also mastering emotional intelligence. “You can be disposed toward empathy, but incompetent at exercising it if you lack the cultural competence to pick up on cues in your surroundings, the intellectual curiosity to explore other people’s reality, the 360-degree thinking to see all the way around a situation, or the adaptability to accommodate what you have come to understand,” says Wilson.”
In essence, the desire to listen and understand isn’t enough for working professionals hoping to get ahead in today’s business world. Rather, you also have to come to each and every conversation with fresh eyes and hear what others are saying. As organizational psychologist and Give and Take author Adam Grant notes, some of the best companies don’t automatically fall into a hierarchal line, but rather have the best leader for the opportunity make the best decision based on the current circumstances. While Grant isn’t suggesting that organizational structures should be done away with, he does suggest that there should be a mutual respect for every colleague’s expertise – and a mutual willingness to listen and hear other perspectives when it comes to problem-solving. You may incredible at building and designing complex business systems, but if you’re not a social media pro or marketing whiz? Maybe the help of a colleague (or an alternate perspective) is called for before you dive headfirst into a major product launch, rebranding, or communications campaign.
Keep in mind, as you consider your thoughts here, that while the words empathy and sympathy are often interchanged, each is a fundamentally different concept. Sympathy involves feeling sensitivity towards a person with regards to a certain circumstance – and is perfectly appropriate to express in certain contexts, e.g. when others experience loss or hurt. But just because you feel sensitivity for these individuals doesn’t actually mean that you are listening to their thoughts or able to consider how they actually feel – or comprehend what those feelings mean to them and how they might impact their thoughts and behaviors.
Empathy is in fact more closely-related in practice to the concept of compassion. It is a compassion for another person’s situation, a respect for their decision-making process, and an assumption that neither of you alone holds the ultimate solution. Instead, it involves more active listening and partnership as you collectively work towards creating a better outcome than you’d arrive at by working on any given problem individually.
Want to be a more effective leader? Start by listening and remembering that not giving someone your full attention prevents him or her from fully connecting with you and inhibits your ability to learn and grow. Don’t miss a chance to support an employee or be a wiser leader – instead, let empathy guide your way. As an executive, the choices you make in each individual interaction with others do not stand alone, but rather build on top of each other to create a living, breathing relationship – and fast-evolving workplace culture. Remember that every conversation – and every time you apply principles of listening and empathy – is another step towards building a bond with others, and corporate culture, that truly shines. The best leaders practice exercising both concepts routinely – a practice you can apply day-to-day in your own interactive colleagues to the benefit of all parties involved, including the business and brand, as well.