As I begin to write this post, I realize it is very ironic that I am tackling the topic of listening. I used to be a horrible listener, and even now it is an area in which I still need much improvement. In fact, me writing a blog post about listening makes almost as much sense as an atheist writing a sermon.
It takes all of my effort and focus to be a good listener, I am easily distracted, or I feel I am too big of a hurry to stop and listen to those around me. Sometimes I am so self-centered that I am only waiting for whoever is talking to be quiet so I can hijack the conversation to a more favorable topic.
Through my mindfulness practice, I’ve been better at seeing my deficiencies and I am improving in these areas. My biggest obstacles have always been patience, and listening. Mindfulness meditation always gives me an opportunity to reflect on which areas of my life I need to improve upon. I feel I have become a better listener both at work and at home by using the practice of empathic listening.
Empathic listening is a form of listening and responding to another person that helps to build mutual understanding and trust. During communication you are actively attempting to understand the other person’s point of view, and taking in their information without judgment. The listener must be attentive, interested, and alert during the conversation, and provide feedback to let the speaker know that you are actively listening.
Prior to mindfulness, and attempting empathic listening, I was very quick to write off new ideas or concerns of others. It was very difficult for me to take their thoughts and feelings into consideration about a topic before I would come up with my own judgment. This would especially happen if I did not like the person on a personal level. They could make the greatest point, have a spectacular idea, or even cure cancer, and I would disregard what they would say based on my inflexible opinions. One of mindfulness’ key components it to be non-judging of the stimuli around you. To focus on the information and data at hand rather than let emotions get in the way. As my instructor would say, “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.”
Being as minimally judgmental as possible is invaluable as a leader. A leader must be able to take in all information, favorable or unfavorable, and use it to make the best decision for all parties involved. Empathic listening helps to create a positive environment where ideas can be shared freely without fear.
Madelyn Burley-Allen in her book, THE FORGOTTEN SKILL lists these guidelines to be a more effective and empathetic listener:
1. Be attentive. Be interested. Be alert and not distracted. Create a positive atmosphere through nonverbal behavior.
2. Be a sounding board — allow the speaker to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical manner.
3. Don’t ask a lot of questions. They can give the impression you are “grilling” the speaker.
4. Act like a mirror — reflect back what you think the speaker is saying and feeling.
5. Don’t discount the speaker’s feelings by using stock phrases like “It’s not that bad,” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
6. Indicate you are listening by providing brief, noncommittal acknowledging responses, e.g., “Uh-huh,” “I see,” “Tell me more,” or even simple head nods.
7. Follow good listening “ground rules:”
a. Don’t interrupt.
b. Don’t change the subject or move in a new direction.
c. Don’t rehearse in your own head.
d. Don’t interrogate.
In my own experience, many of my coworkers are afraid of speaking to our administrator for fear that they will be ignored or chastised for their thoughts and ideas. There have been several instances when employees have been treated very harshly when attempting to bring up new ideas or strategies to our leadership teams. By receiving this consistent negative response, most employees feel underappreciated and refuse to go above and beyond their job descriptions, and withhold great ideas or information that could lead to great improvements for our school.
An effective leader sees their employees and coworkers around them as valuable resources, and should value their thoughts, concerns and opinions. By utilizing empathic listening you can be a more effective listener and leader to those around you. This will inspire your employees and coworkers to go above and beyond the call of duty and take extra pride in their work.
Listening truly is a forgotten skill, and like all skills, it must be practiced thoroughly to master. Try empathic listening today, and begin reaping rewards from the trusting relationships you build with those around you.