You Can't Have Empathy without Active Listening

2 min read · December 15, 2020

Category: General MusingsTagged with: Psychological SafetyVulnerabilityEmpathy

Photo by Meghan Schiereck

Dr Carl Marci explored how people connect in active listening relationships. His research indicated empathically displaying understanding in relationships is key to creating connections and increasing the perceived closeness between individuals. Marci says, "It’s very hard to be empathic when you’re talking. Talking is really complicated, because you’re thinking and planning what you’re going to say, and you tend to get stuck in your own head. But not when you’re listening. When you’re really listening, you lose time. There’s no sense of yourself, because it’s not about you. It’s all about this task—to connect completely to that person."

It's easy to get sucked into the cycle of making our thoughts known. Many meetings expose this pattern: individuals waiting for a moment of silence, or not, and then jumping in with their thoughts. They may be related to the previous person's thoughts, or abandoning them to start their own train. This behavior loses out on the ability to connect with the individual and their thoughts; to show them that their thoughts are valued and we want to understand where they are coming from.

Unfortunately some meetings are structured in a way that the loudest individuals can dominate and control the direction of the conversation. This breaks down communication equity at best. At worst, certain individuals can feel not included in the group, not heard, and not respected. This damages the psychological safety of the team. How can we challenge this stance? Here are some approaches and tools I have seen successfully used and embraced:

  • Hands raised: Yes this is a pedagogical tool that may seem childish at first. However, when normalized it can be a valuable method for someone who is more interjection averse to make known to the group that they have some input to provide. I've seen this work best when individuals who are speaking also call out that a given individual has their hand raised. Many video chat applications have a built in functionality to support this, although physically raising a hand, or typing in chat that "I have a thought..." can also be valuable.

  • 5 Second Pause: The 5 second pause is a useful tool when embraced by individuals who more naturally drive the conversation. In practice, it encourages individuals to wait a few seconds before sharing a thought after someone else concludes. This reduces the sense of first person to jump in after, or while, someone else is finishing their thought. Additionally, providing a pause gives individuals time to process what they just heard, ask follow up questions, and for more reserved individuals to speak up.

  • Giving someone space to speak: Similar to the hands raising approach, this can be valuable to explicitly give more reserved individuals space to speak. It can be as direct as saying that you would like to hear what that person's thoughts are. This approach should be used with caution. It can have the effect of putting someone in a spotlight and may not work for all individuals or in all circumstances. Understanding your audience and using open questions can help mitigate this.

Active Listening is a practice in vulnerability. It demonstrates that we aren't planning a counter discussion. It shows that we value that person and are willing to place aside our own agenda. How can you prioritize connecting to people via active listening today?

Related Posts

The Importance of Creating Psychological Safety

We've all probably experienced some truly amazing teams and some dreadful ones. What sets them apart? It isn't pure happenstance or a roll of the dice. The foundation of healthy teams and cultures is… Read more

What Mistakes did you Make This Sprint?

It's time for the Sprint Retrospective and people are submitting their thoughts on what went well and what to improve. As the team submits their ideas, the what to improve column remains minimal if… Read more

2022 Skyler Lemay. All Rights Reserved.