Compassionate Listening Makes You a Better Leader: 7 Listening Tips

by | Mar 20, 2017 | approachable leadership

When was the last time you really listened to someone? When was the last time someone really listened to you?

Has it been a while? Do you remember how you felt after that conversation? Why don’t we do that all the time? It’s something I grapple with pretty often.

I’m flying back today from Toronto where I was honored to talk Approachable Leadership with a number of leading Canadian companies. By the way, here’s a travel tip. When you cross the border be sure not to tell the border agent that you are an American going up to teach Canadians about leadership. They had to resuscitate my first border agent who nearly died laughing!

If you’ve seen me present the keynote recently you know one of the practical takeaways is our “Recognizing Gaps” tool. This tool helps leaders recognize the tell-tale signs of power distance. One thing I teach is to listen for the signals of a gap. (To learn more about the signs of power distance check out the Recognizing Gaps Tool in our Approachable Leadership Toolkit – it’s also on page 24 of the Playbook).

But it’s not just about listening. It’s about how you listen. Are you “listening” like you’re in a verbal tennis match, getting ready for your next volley? Or are you listening to understand? Are you practicing  compassionate listening?

I came across this term in an article over at Greater Good on the importance of teachers listening with compassion in the classroom. And while the article itself is geared toward teachers and students, the principles apply to to any relationship.

Why is it important to listen with compassion?

Martha Caldwell, author of the article, points to the Buddhist monk Thich Knat Hanh to lay the groundwork for how compassionate listening makes a difference. She writes (emphasis mine):

“The mere act of listening helps relieve the pain that often clouds perception, and when people feel heard, validated, and understood, they are better able to figure out solutions on their own. Deep listening and the emotional resonance it creates calms the nervous system and helps create a state of optimal learning—open and receptive, trusting and calm, yet alert. This is the neurological state we want to cultivate in our classrooms.”

And I’ll add—in our workplace.

I emphasized a few points in that quote that are worth highlighting. First, when we listen we relieve pain. At it’s core, power distance is about fear – many of the folks we lead are afraid to approach us. A leader who fails to acknowledge this or does a bad job of listening ends up creating pain. One who listens relieves pain and fear.

One big reason leaders do a bad job of listening is that they immediately go into problem solving mode (I’m bad about this). If you are spending all the time your teammate is talking trying to figure out how to solve their problem you aren’t really listening. This will come across in your body language. On the other hand if you focus on actually listening very often your teammate will solve their own problem (a solution they are much more likely to buy into and act on).

Finally, listening helps everyone’s mental state. In the keynote I talk about how power distance triggers “flight or fight” reflexes deep in our nervous system. These reactions are often happening subconsciously. That’s why leaders have to be on the lookout for physical, verbal and behavioral signals of a gap. When you really listen you calm the nervous system and create a resourceful mental state for you and your teammate. It completely changes the dynamic.

How do you listen with compassion?

When Caldwell asked a group of students, “What do you need to feel safe with the people in this room?,” the students responded with a list of “relational qualities that embody compassion.” Acceptance. Trust. Respect. Support.

Your employees crave these same qualities in their environment at work and in their coworkers. And why wouldn’t they? People want to feel safe and comfortable with the people they spend more time with than anyone else in their lives.

It’s when your people feel safe that they do their best work. And compassionate listening, cultivating understanding, and creating connections are the best way to accomplish that.

Here are the 7 key components to compassionate listening:

  1. Be fully present. People know when you’re not giving your complete attention. When this happens, you’re doing more harm than good. I find that a lot of the time, leaders want to be better. But they half-ass it. You’re busy. And trust me, I get that. But my point is, if you can’t make time to be fully present, postpone the conversation until you can. Say you’ve invited an employee to open up to you about a struggle, be it work or personal. They do. They think you care. And that makes them feel good. But halfway through you’re checking an email that just popped up on your phone. Suddenly they’re wishing they hadn’t opened up at all. They feel vulnerable, but not safe. And resentment develops.
  2. Know listening is enough. This is a big one. Don’t try to solve a problem unless you’re asked. Most people are completely capable of solving their own problems. What they want more than anything is for someone to empathize with their struggle. They especially want that from leaders. They want recognition for their hard work. And for the dragons they face and slay regularly that too often go unnoticed. Simply put, they want to be appreciated. Do your best to make your employees feel understood and, like Caldwell said, they will be “better able to figure out solutions on their own.”
  3. Respond with acceptance. Nobody wants to feel judged. We especially don’t want to feel judged by those in higher power positions. This increases distance. And I know what you’re thinking. As a leader, part of your job is to assess your employees. Here’s where the line is on that one. Assess their job performance. But give people the benefit of the doubt. Make the “hero assumption” that poor performance is due to an obstacle in the way and not due to a lack of effort. It’s not that you won’t sometimes face poor performers. But you may be surprised how often your own assumptions are contributing to the problem.
  4. Understand conflict as part of real-life learning. Encouraging an environment where people feel safe and free to speak up about their issues or concerns is not going to come without conflict. Conflict is inevitable in life and in work. Don’t shy away from it. Be the kind of leader that embraces it and uses it as a catalyst for positive change. BUT, in the process, make sure both sides feel heard and understood.
  5. Ask authentic questions to learn more. Open-ended questions are much more resourceful than closed-ended questions (questions you can answer in one word). Asking open-ended questions shows more interest and it encourages the speaker to expand on their thought. To share more. Fill in blanks. To reveal their most authentic selves. Furthermore, it helps ensure that you truly understand where the speaker is coming from.
  6. Be gentle with yourself. Real conversations spark real emotions. Within the speaker and the listener. “Accept yourself and your internal feeling responses without judgement. Allow yourself time to process and learn.” This is especially true when what an employee shares with you spurs a realization about your own leadership or actions. We can all do better. But we will do better more often when we more often invite a different perspective than our own.
  7. Treat the candidness of others as a gift. This one is simple. Be trustworthy. Value what people have chosen to share with you as it should be valued.

Compassionate listening is not going to solve all your problems. But it could solve a lot of them. Make time for it. And you will see the impact on your team.

What do you find most challenging when talking with your teammates? Do you practice compassionate listening? Which of the 7 practices are you strong at? Any you could improve? Let us know in the comments!

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