Empathetic listening is the key to being influential. It’s not enough to be smart and well-researched and just plain right, even (especially) when you have the evidence to prove it. You have to earn the right to be right. Others will listen to you—be open to your advice, to your point of view, to your perspective—once they feel they have been fully heard and understood by you. And they really do have to feel it. Here’s another way of saying it: It’s not enough for you to “get” them; they have to get that you “get” them.
This is precisely where empathy gets left out of the usual business conversation, because “getting” others requires more than taking good notes, or periodically pausing to summarize the content of their communications; it means you have to tune into the music (tone, mood, emotion) as well as the words, and then reflect it all back accurately and frequently enough that you get some kind of cue that you’re doing a good job of relating to the entirety of their world.
Thomas Friedman nailed it when he said, “It’s not what you hear by listening that’s important; it’s what you say by listening that’s important.” Friedman was talking about empathy.
We run a drill in our learning programs to practice what we call “Three-Level Listening.” At the end of this humbling little exercise, participants will invariably say, “OK, I see the value of empathy. And I also see that I’m not very good at it. How can I practice without risking looking bad with clients while I’m improving?”
I answer by first asserting that clunky empathy trumps no empathy every time (you’ll get credit for your efforts, your intentions, and your willingness to take a risk). And then I offer a simple tip: “Empathize with the grocery store clerk.” And the drycleaner. And the newspaper vendor. And the babysitter. Why? Three reasons:
(1) The stakes are low. You’ll worry less about getting it wrong and you’re generally less likely to be reactive. (Empathy gets a lot harder when your C-level client has just informed you that she’s disappointed in your team’s results.)
(2) The environment is target-rich. Most of us interact with service providers on a daily basis. And we need daily practice to build muscle memory. (When the stakes are high we especially need those strong muscles to triumph over our reptilian brains.)
(3) (Bonus) You’ll make a big difference for someone. People in these kind of roles are used to dealing with complaints, not being related to.
Practicing everyday empathy requires that you first tune in—in other words, pay attention to all the data you’re getting from another human being. Then, try an empathetic turn of phrase. Here are some examples:
To the grocery store clerk who has a strained look on her face: “Looks like maybe you’ve had a rough day.”
To the cab driver who’s stuck in traffic and horn-happy: “I’m sure there’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with this mess all the time.”
To the mail carrier whose brow is moist in the mid-day sun: “I’ll bet there are days like today when you wish you had an indoor job!”
To the waitress who drops a tray full of dishes: “Bummer.”
To a Facebook friend whose status message says, “Hit a home run today!”: “Congrats! You must be psyched!” (Empathy is called for in happy situations, too.)
Use your own words, of course. And use emotion words whenever you can (“frustrating,” “psyched”). While it’s true you might not get the emotion right, the risk you take to be in their world matters more. Plus you’ll likely get corrected, which just provides another opportunity to practice.
With daily practice, you’ll be poised and ready the next time you’re given an opportunity to convince a client they should hire you, or sway an executive team to adopt your recommendation, or recover from a project failure.
Empathy is a big differentiator in the business world. With whom will you build your muscles today?