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Use This Rarely-Applied Listening Tactic To Clearly Demonstrate Empathy

When was the last time you took a listening class? If you are like most people, the answer is probably never.

During my eight years of post-secondary education and my 30+ years working in the corporate world, I know I never had any listening training. I received training on almost every imaginable topic (and some that were unimaginable), but never listening.

However, I repeatedly heard this cute phrase: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” (Epictetus 55-135 BC) — but no one ever taught me HOW to do what I was supposed to be doing when I had my mouth shut.

Sure, over the years I received a spattering of simplistic advice (e.g., look people in the eye, don’t check your phone) — but that was about it.

The Benefits Of Being A Good Listener

My experience is almost universal despite the fact that listening is one of the most valuable human skills. The benefits of being a good listener include:

  • Increases productivity
  • Speeds problem solving
  • Improves decision making
  • Generates trust and respect
  • Defuses conflict
  • Boosts self-confidence
  • Reduces mistakes
  • Improves customer service
  • Enhances teamwork
  • Motivates others to take initiative
  • Demonstrates empathy
  • Improves negotiation outcomes
  • Facilitates products/services improvement
  • Causes you to be viewed as a “good conversationalist”
  • Makes you more popular

In addition, you will likely learn new things:

“A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he knows something.” – Wilson Mizner — American Playwright 1876 to 1933

In 1992, a commission was put in place by then Secretary of Labor, Lynn Martin, to determine the skills people need to succeed in the world of work. The benefits of listening were highlighted in a report by the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (http://www.academicinnovations.com/report.html).

As you might expect, the commission identified a wide range of skills (37 skills to be exact) but just five were specified as “Basic” skills — and “Listening” was one of these five (the others were reading, writing, speaking, and math).

Here is how “Listening” skills were defined by SCANS:

Receives, attends to, interprets, and responds to verbal messages and other cues such as body language in ways that are appropriate to the purpose; for example, to comprehend; to learn; to critically evaluate; to appreciate; or to support the speaker.”

Why Don’t We Get Trained In How To Listen

You would sure think that, with the many benefits of listening and with listening being widely recognized as a critical success skill, more effort would be put into teaching people how to listen — but that doesn’t happen. We all get plenty of training in reading, writing, speaking, and math, but not listening.

I’ve wondered over the years why that’s the case and I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer.

Maybe listening is like walking. No one taught us how to walk; we just figured it out. Possibly that’s the expectation for listening — we’ll each just figure it out.

But, even that explanation doesn’t seem right. Although most people don’t pay any attention to it, there’s actually a lot of training on how to walk. There’s even a “Walk Magazine.” I looked and looked and I can’t find any magazine about listening.

Again, I just don’t get it. If I was running the US education system, I would make sure a block of instruction on listening was required at every grade in primary and secondary school and that there was at least one required class in college about listening. I’d also push for every organization to provide a class on listening to all employees.

Now — obviously — I’m not the first person to recognize the importance of listening. Here are some quotes from several well-known individuals:

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” — Bernard M. Baruch, economic advisor to six presidents (1870 to 1965)

“It takes a great man to be a good listener.” — Calvin Coolidge, thirteenth president of the United States (1872 to 1933)

“The art of conversation lies in listening” — Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine (1919 to 1990)

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” — Bryant H. McGill,  author, Nobel Prize nominee (1969 to present)

We Need To Learn How To Listen

There are plenty of people who have recognized the importance of listening over the years but few who have taught us HOW to listen.

The late Steven Covey, the author of the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (sold over 25 million copies in 40 languages), is probably one of the world’s biggest advocates of listening. His fifth habit was labeled “Seek First To Understand, and Then To Be Understood” but it was all about listening.

I read this book when it first was published in 1990 and have read it several times since. I reviewed the chapter about Habit 5 again in preparation for writing this article. Covey’s main point is that you need to practice “empathic listening” — listening with the intent to understand, to fully and deeply understand from a reference point of the other person’s perspective, not yours.

He describes how most people listen “autobiographically” — they evaluate (agree or disagree), they probe (ask questions from their own point of view), they advise (give counsel based on their own experience), or they interpret (try to figure people out based on their own motives). In other words, most people listen from their own frame of reference rather than the frame of reference of the speaker.

In the 25 pages Covey writes on listening, he does an outstanding job of selling the value of listening, with some great stories. Also, unlike almost everything I’ve ever read about listening, he actually teaches a couple of skills about HOW to listen — and he demonstrates how to apply those skills via an excellent example of a dad trying to listen to his son who is complaining about school.

If you haven’t read Covey’s book, it is worth getting a copy just to read this six-page example. He ends this section of the chapter with this:

“I have gone through the skills of empathic listening because skill is an important part of any habit. We need to have the skills. But, let me reiterate that the skills will not be effective unless they come from a sincere desire to understand.”

This is an incredibly important point. Without this attitudinal foundation, the application of any listening skill will not be effective and, in many cases, might even come across as manipulative. Note, there’s a second approach to not coming across as manipulative that I will cover in a future article.

Must Have A Foundational Understanding of Empathy To Be A Good Listener

You may know from my past articles that I work for a company called Vistelar. We are a conflict management training company and we’ve learned over the last thirty years that effective listening is one of the most powerful methods of managing conflict. However, we also know how easy it is for people to seem manipulative if their attitude isn’t right.

Therefore, before we share any listening skill in our training, we work hard to develop in our students a foundational understanding of empathy, as well as a strong buy-in to empathy’s critical importance in the management of conflict.

We’ve learned that without this foundation, applying “listening skills” can actually cause negative outcomes. Again, I will elaborate on this point and explain the second approach we teach in a future article.

Effective listening is such an important element of conflict management that we go far beyond the couple of skills that Covey teaches. In fact, we teach eight “active listening” techniques. Additionally, people frequently don’t say what they mean in conflict situations so we teach another listening tactic we call Beyond Active Listening that has six elements.

I don’t have room in this article to cover all eight of our “active listening” techniques and all six elements of our Beyond Active Listening tactic, but I do want to describe one of the six.

The Reflect Tactic

We call this element “Reflect” and it's one of the most powerful, but also one of the most rarely used, listening tactics. Here is how we describe this tactic in Vistelar’s conflict management training manual.

Reflect — Acknowledge the person’s emotions and give him or her the opportunity to talk out his or her feelings (rather than act them out). State your view of what the other person is feeling and why — succinctly and precisely as possible.

“Hmmm. You’re feeling anxious because you’re not sure where your mom is. Do I have this right?”

Keep your Reflection tentative and be sure to give the other person time to respond to your question.

Note that strong emotions — anger, hate, fear — usually don’t need reflecting because the other person is often well aware of these feelings. Instead, use the Reflect element to bring out more subtle emotions that the other person might not recognize he or she is feeling.

This element helps you understand the nature and intensity of the other person’s emotions. Be sure to always end this tactic with a confirming question.

As you may know, I spent a fair amount of time in the hospital during 2017 and most of my interactions with hospital staff are now a blur. However, I distinctly remember the few times when this Reflect element was used, because — at the time — it was like a mammoth breath of fresh air.

“Mr. Oelschlaeger, you must be concerned that you’ve been here for four days and we still haven’t figured out what’s going on. Is that right?”

“Mr. Oelschlaeger, you’re feeling worried about this procedure because it wasn’t successful the first time we tried it. Am I right?”

“Mr. Oelschlaeger, you’re sounding frustrated because the doctor hasn’t come to see you yet this morning. Do I have that right?”

“Mr. Oelschlaeger, you’re looking pleased that you are going home today. Am I reading you right?

Do you know what my reaction was with each of these incidences? “Finally — someone seems to be paying attention to my feelings rather than just going through the motions of their job.”

It is really quite amazing the memorable impact these simple comments had on me. It’s not like I was treated badly otherwise. The reality is that I was treated quite well. During my multiple hospital stays, everyone was competent, friendly and nice — and they all must have done a pretty good job since I’m alive to write this article.

But, still, it was these few Reflect comments that were so refreshing at the time and have stuck with me many years later.

To be effective at the Reflect tactic, you must go “beyond active listening” to discover the meaning and feeling behind the other person’s words, tone of voice, and non-verbal (e.g., facial expressions, eye contact, hand position, body language, posture) — always with the awareness that people often don’t say what they mean and that feelings are often disguised behind non-feeling words.

The goal is to accurately express in your own words, tone of voice, and non-verbals what you perceive are the meaning and feeling conveyed by the other person.

The Four Developmental Stages of Listening

Covey discusses the four developmental stages of empathic listening: mimic content, rephrase content, reflect emotion, and, finally, our Reflect approach, where you rephrase content and reflect emotion.

In the first example above, the content is the four days I was in the hospital without a diagnosis and the emotion was concern.

In the second example, the content was the need to repeat the procedure and the emotion was worry.

In the third example, the content was the absent doctor and the emotion was frustration.

In the fourth example, the content was getting out of the hospital and the emotion was pleasure.

Note that you can Reflect both negative and positive content/emotions. In either case, the goals is for the other person to feel: a) he or she has been heard and understood, and b) you are interested in what he or she is trying to communicate.

When you Reflect negative content/emotions, the negativity is lessened and when you Reflect positive content/emotions, the positivity is deepened.

As Covey says, “What happens when you use this fourth stage of empathic listening is really incredible. As you authentically seek to understand, you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give him psychological air. You also help him work through his own thoughts and feelings… [If you do this], there will be times when you will be literally stunned by the pure knowledge and understanding that will flow to you from another human being.”

As stated in Vistelar’s conflict management manual in the section about the Reflect element of the Beyond Active Listening tactic, “Keep your Reflection tentative and be sure to give the other person time to respond to your question.”

If you are reasonably confident in your perceptions, you could start the Reflection with a lead-in like, “It seems to you,” or “As you see it,” or “You figure.” However, if you are less confident or if you’re unsure if the other person will be receptive to your listening, you might start with a lead-in like, “It seems like,” or “It might be that,” or “I’m guessing that.” Such lead-ins set the right stage for the next step — to state your view of what the other person is feeling and why, as succinctly and precisely as possible.

You always want to end a Reflection with a confirming question and then to actually listen to the other person’s response.

Let me give you one more example of the use of the Reflect element, which is based on the story in Covey’s book about the dad trying to listen to his son.

Son: “Boy, Dad, I’ve had it. School is for the birds.”

Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school. Is that right.”

Do you see how this response provides so much more psychological air to the son than these more common responses:

Dad: “I don’t think that’s true.” (evaluating)

Dad: “What’s the matter son?” (probing)

Dad: “You need to suck it up.” (advising)

Dad: “You just don’t want to go to school today.” (interpreting)

What To Do In The Face Of Anger, Hate, or Fear

Before ending this article, I want to elaborate on one more point from the Reflect section of Vistelar’s conflict management manual: “Note that strong emotions — anger, hate, fear — usually don’t need reflecting because the other person is often well aware of these feelings.”

For example, consider the reaction you’d likely get if someone was conveying considerable anger via their words, tone of voice and non-verbals and you said “You’re feeling angry because someone stole your car. Do I have that right?”

Do you think that would defuse the situation? Or, do you think it might make things worse — “Duh, darn right I’m angry. Someone stole my #$@&%*! car.”

Given this possibility, it’s best to not use the Reflect tactic when the other person is conveying strong emotions.

However, there may still be times when using the Reflect element can lessen the negativity. For example, that might be true if someone is “in crisis.”

Crisis occurs when an individual has an experience that exceeds his or her coping skills and is actively displaying at-risk behaviors (e.g., behaviors that could cause emotional or physical harm to the individual in crisis or to others).

At Vistelar, we have a systematic and multi-step approach for how to effectively manage such situations and the Reflect tactic is one element of this approach. People in crisis can lose cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral control where they’re not in touch with their feelings. Therefore, it can sometimes help — in addition to a wide range of other crisis intervention tactics — to say something like, “You’re feeling some strong emotions. But you’re safe with me. Let me help. Is that OK?”

This crisis-intervention Reflection is even more tentative than a Reflection where you’re trying to accurately express another person’s more subtle emotions. Note the use of “strong emotions” rather than an explicit label of the emotion (e.g., anger, hate, fear).

I will dig deeper into HOW to listen in future articles. But as a result of this one, I hope you now understand:

  • Listening is one of the most valuable of human skills (if not THE most valuable)
  • People frequently make common listening mistakes
  • Training on HOW to listen should be vastly more prevalent in our schools and organizations
  • How to use the Reflect element of Vistelar’s Beyond Active Listening tactic

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” — Ralph G. Nichols, author Are You Listening (1957) and widely considered the father of the field of listening.

Allen Oelschlaeger

Allen Oelschlaeger / About Author

Allen is a conflict expert with a focus on creating safe and respectful workplaces. He is a creator of the Confidence in Conflict book series and podcast, leader of the company’s e-learning initiative, and authority on how to best train the psychomotor skill of conflict management. His background includes Wharton School MBA, University of Wisconsin faculty member, and leadership roles in the healthcare industry.