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Weekly Blog #77 - Seek first to understand, then to be understood...

To start this off, let me make a cheeky statement: Most people, me included, do not listen with the intent to understand - they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives. Many times in the past I have been thinking about this without properly trying to change my behavior. And even the ones teaching about empathic listening admit to fall short most of the time in properly executing this type of communication.

Yet, being a close and caring listener can be as vital in the workplace as it is in your personal life. Validating others’ viewpoints and expressing our compassion is an important way of communicating for building and maintaining strong working relationships. In this blog, I'd like to define empathic listening based on a few good sources that I've found, discuss why it’s important and provide tips and examples for empathic listening.


What is empathic listening?

According to Stephen R. Covey, author of the book "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", empathic listening doesn't mean "listening until you understand". It means "listening until the other person feels understood". It is important to mention that empathic listening is not about agreeing with somebody. It’s about understanding someone fully - emotionally, as well as intellectually. It's about listening not only with your ears, but more importantly with your eyes (if possible) and with your heart.

Although sometimes called "active listening" or "reflective listening", do not mistake empathic listening with the aforementioned. As Covey writes in his book: "When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of "active" listening or "reflective" listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationships, and often insults those "listened" to in such a way. It is also essentially autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical. You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate." However, one main quality of empathic listening is giving support and encouragement rather than advice or criticism.

Why you should practice empathic listening

Empathic listening is powerful. It provides you with more accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. And this is not only way more interesting than trying to infiltrate someone else with your thoughts, emotions, and experiences - which basically leads to learning and taking away nothing in the process - it also opens a world of interesting insights and ideas you did not know about someone else or even about yourself.

Being a present and caring listener takes practice and requires a couple of qualities such as compassion (see also last week's blog), non-judgement, patience, and a certain form of responsiveness (e.g. "What kind of feedback would you like from me?" or "Would you like to hear my response to that?").

Here are some steps you can take to build your empathic listening skills:

  1. Create a comfortable space for sharing

  2. Acknowledge the speaker’s feelings

  3. Pay attention to body language

  4. Let them guide the conversation

  5. Wait to speak

  6. Be encouraging

Benefits of empathic listening in the workplace

As always, the topics I am writing about do not only affect how one should conduct him- or herself in private. They also have practical implications on how to act in the workplace. There are a couple of reasons why you should practice empathic listening at work, especially in a leadership role (based on an article on

  • Building working relationships: If you’ve demonstrated that you can listen empathically, others may be more inclined to share their experience with you. This can help build trust and more positive interactions in the workplace.

  • Helping you act considerately: Once you’re in the habit of considering others’ feelings, you may be more likely to act kindly and compassionately in your day-to-day life. For instance, if a coworker was hurt by the tone of a colleague’s email, you can consider making the wording of your own emails more upbeat and encouraging.

  • Increasing productivity: When coworkers trust and understand each other, they typically work better as a team. When there is minimized conflict, they can spend more of the day working, resulting in greater output.

  • Problem solving: If you have a history of trust and open sharing with your coworkers, you all may feel more comfortable proposing new approaches to workplace issues. For instance, if your colleague just told you they feel like another coworker has not respected their proposals for new sales approaches, you can find ways to validate their input in a meeting so others are more considerate. As a result, the new campaign might be more comprehensive and successful.

It's no surprise to me that there are similarities between the above stated benefits of empathic listening in the workplace and the benefits of another psychological construct that I have been writing about in the past: psychological safety.

Psychological safety has a strong effect on employee voice behavior - the way employees communicate in the workspace. If employees feel psychologically safe in the workspace - which is defined as "a shared belief held by members of the team [or the organization] that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking" (Edmondson, 1999) - they also tend to speak their mind more freely and express positive and constructive thoughts, ideas, criticism and feedback. Even though I did not find any studies yet showing a clear relationship between empathic listening and psychological safety, I would strongly assume that empathic listening (e.g. as a leadership skill) can be an antecedent of psychological safety and, subsequently, foster positive voice behavior, openness and creativity in the workplace.

Covey uses a different term for psychological safety: "Psychological Air". He states that people need psychological air to open up and communicate how they really feel and what they really want. Covey states that when you listen with empathy to another person, you give them psychological air. This requires authenticity and the willingness to understand. The more authentic you become in giving people psychological air, the more genuine in your expression, particularly regarding personal experiences and even self-doubts, the more people can relate to your expression and the safer it makes them feel to express themselves. This can lead to creative empathy, producing new insights and learnings and a sense of excitement and adventure that keeps the communication process going.

Of course, it's not a simple task and, as I've stated above, even the ones so familiar with this topic struggle to implement it in daily conversations. But there's hope - so let me sum up this blog with another quote from Covey's book: "Empathic listening takes time, but it doesn't take anywhere near as much time as it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings when you're already miles down the road; to redo; to live with unexpressed and unsolved problems; to deal with the results of not giving people psychological air."

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