If You Want To Be Understood, Listen First
It doesn’t do any good to speak up if no one is listening. By listening first, you model the behavior you want from others, and you increase the odds that someone will listen to you when you do talk. Empathic listening demonstrates respect, builds rapport, increases understanding and decreases misunderstandings. It also helps the speaker to explore further their position, which can contribute to unearthing new insights and deeper meaning, for you and for the speaker.
If you are hesitant to offer your perspective during meetings, empathic listening will help give you the courage to speak up. Once you have taken the time to understand another person, you will feel more entitled to have your perspective listened to and taken seriously. You will also know where you agree and disagree with the other person, and what is at the root of any disagreements. You can then express yourself in ways that increase the odds that the other person will be able to hear and understand what you have to say.
Let’s look at a composite example, where listening first helped someone speak up and improved their chances of being heard.
Every time Bill’s work team gets together, people talk over each other. Bill has good ideas that could help move projects forward, but he hasn’t been speaking up because he doesn’t believe anyone will listen.
After learning about Empathic Listening, the next time Bill was in a meeting where he wanted to express his ideas, he listened carefully for a while to the most vocal person, working to understand their meaning. Then said, “Sara, it seems that ___[paraphrasing what he understood]. Tell me more about why you think this is a good idea.”
Sara shifted her focus to Bill and expressed more about her idea. Bill continued to listen and to paraphrase what she was saying until he thought that he understand her perspective and why it is important to her. Sarah acknowledged that Bill understood her perspective. As is often the case, Bill noticed that there were areas where he agreed with Sarah, and some, where he disagreed.
Once Sara felt understood, there is room for Bill to speak up. He started by acknowledging where he and Sarah agreed. He then offered his perspective on the areas where they disagreed and offered a few new ideas. As Bill and Sara engaged, others paid attention because it was no longer just everyone talking at once. Someone is listening. The dynamic has shifted.
After listening empathically and then coming from your perspective, it is helpful if you provide the rationale for your positions and the reason what you are suggesting is important to you and the team.
Empathic listening is deeply listening for the purpose of fully understanding another’s perspective, including the emotion and meaning attached to it, then demonstrating what you have comprehended, inviting clarification until the other verifies that you have it. An important aspect of empathy that some miss is that it involves understanding another person “as if” you were them, without losing the “as if.” When we listen empathically, we still hold onto our reality; our truth; our perspective(s). We may later decide to alter our belief based on what we have understood, but the empathic listening does NOT include giving up our perspective.
It sounds relatively easy, right? On one level it is. It just involves listening so that you understand, and reflecting back your understanding so that the other person feels understood. However, things get in the way of understanding which makes the simple process difficult to implement. Read Overcoming Barriers to Empathic Listening for a five step process to managing the things that get in the way of empathic listening.
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