One of the most challenging tasks for a leader is to develop trust within an organization, which can lead to key performance indicators such as employee satisfaction and retention. Each person’s approach to leadership is informed by their goals and influenced by their past. Regardless of proven models, there are as many methods for developing trust as there are leaders in the modern world. Researchers agree: the two essential soft skills to develop and maintain trust are active listening and the power to connect through empathy.
In this two-part series, you’ll learn key insights about active listening and empathy as well as takeaway tools to practice both active listening and empathy flexibility.
The average listening time of a healthcare provider to a patient before interrupting is 11 seconds. The time is even less for women and BIPOC patients. When controlling for adherence and return visits, participants who rated their healthcare provider with high empathy were 80% less likely to report errors, according to a 2019 study. By demonstrating longer than average listening times and displaying empathy, the patient felt heard and cared for, and in exchange, placed trust, even in brief encounters with their healthcare provider.
Trust goes both ways. Active listening is a two-way communication technique that requires conscious engagement with another person. Practicing and demonstrating active listening skills positively influences the perceptions of the listener's helpfulness, sensitivity, and supportiveness. In business, active listening skills are critical to build trust and establish rapport, and sharing care for your team’s well-being.
The Journal of English, Literature and Culture provides a framework to improve your active listening as well as dispel myths of the skill:
Awareness, Reception and Perception
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone you care about but you’re thinking about other things? Knowing your limits and distraction threshold can help you become a more engaged listener. If the environment or timing doesn't allow you to provide full attention to the speaker, ask for a change of location or time. “I’m really distracted in this environment and I really want to give you my full attention, can we discuss this at…” As simple as it may sound, it works. Remember, simple is not synonymous with easy. Practice attentiveness when listening to the speaker. Mitigate distractions for both of you; use open body language including, facing the speaker directly with your body, direct eye contact, ignoring distractions, and demonstrating attentiveness throughout the conversation. Listen with the aim to avoid judging or filtering the main ideas of the speaker - listen to understand. Take what the speaker says in real-time, without formulating opinions. Listening carefully and attentively allows proper interpretation of what you hear; it also facilitates understanding.
Nuances and Habits
Remove yourself from the picture. This means you work to ensure you aren’t viewing the speaker through a particular filter or lens - don't attempt to judge while engaged in the conversation. Filters are the leading causes of miscommunication. Try not to be swayed or form counterarguments or perspectives while the other person is still speaking. Avoid Jumping to conclusions; patience is the key to effective, mindful, active listening. Active listening is a learned skill that requires sustained effort. Skilled listeners provide the speaker an opportunity to speak without interruptions. Too many questions, even searching for clarity can transmit the idea to the speaker that you are not invested in hearing what they have to say. Remain open. Non-verbal cues can help you both remain engaged, such as maintaining eye contact and a simple head nod.
Speaker-centered feedback is an essential key to interpreting information while avoiding unclarified assumptions, premature judgments, prejudices and prior held beliefs. These can cloud interpretations and distort what is heard. When asking for feedback, resist the urge to metaphorically place yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Projecting your own beliefs or experiences onto the speaker is a slippery slope which could result in the misinterpretation of the speaker’s message and serve to alienate them.
The speaker is living this conversation for the first time. Everything we experience is the very first time it has ever happened in its unique way affecting our unique life. It’s important to remember: regardless of your own experience, no matter how similar it may be with the speaker's, it is not the same experiences or reactions to those experiences you have lived. Listening and asking for clarity with judgment, for the purpose of understanding is the purpose of feedback. You are not trying to understand how you would feel in their situation, you are trying to understand their perspective and how they feel.
When in doubt, do not dispense advice. Most people engage in conversation to be seen and heard, not to be told what to do. If the conversation seems to be headed in the direction of asking for advice from you, instead ask what they believe they should do. Help them be the architect of their decisions. If advice giving occurs, always ask permission prior to providing guidance, even if that is where the conversation seems to be headed. Feedback oriented listening can utilize a variety of clarifying phrases and questions and provide opportunities to ask for clarification while removing prejudices. Examples of clarifying questions or feedback include:
- “What do you mean by…?”
- “Tell me more about…”
- “Could you please explain…?”
- “Could you help me understand…?”
- “What seems to be your main obstacle?”
- “What do you believe you need to do?”
- What do you make of…?”
Myths of Active Listening
- “I’m a great listener.” Most people overestimate their skill as a listener. The best way to gauge your skill is based on your ability to arrive at understanding and comprehension of what you have heard. Active listening is a two way street; winning the trust of the speaker is equally important as your ability to comprehend what you hear.
- Active listening is not a skill which can be learned. Active listening is not a skill you are born with, and therefore must be practiced and can ONLY be learned.
- Active listening is dependent on gender. There is a stereotype that relationship building and communication is a more important skill to women than men. Gender has no bearing on active listening, but it is based on personality and the ways messages are delivered which has the greater impact.
- Active listening improves with age. There is sufficient proof to determine age is not correlated with listening skills. The determining factor is practice, regardless of age. Experience and maturity can play a very limited role.
- Smarter people are better listeners. Studies prove beyond doubt there is no link between cognitive ability, intelligence and your ability to listen well. The opposite is true; highly intelligent people tend to “tune out” sooner. The exception is people with a high emotional quotient (EQ = emotional intelligence), they are more likely to be better listeners because they are more patient and empathetic.
Ready to give it a try? A good listener listens for the sake of listing, not for judging.
Active listening in and of itself will help you develop trust and engage your team in a supportive environment. Practicing empathy and recognizing different types of empathy in others will help you further relationships outside of individual conversations.
“Trust is one of the most powerful forms of motivation and inspiration. People want to be trusted. They respond to trust. Whatever our situation, we need to get good at establishing, extending, and restoring trust — not as a manipulative technique, but as the most effective way of relating to and working with others, and the most effective way of getting results."
The SPEED of Trust, The One Thing that Changes Everything by Stephen M.R. Covey
In Part 2, we’ll combine active listening with empathy to mold your master key for unlocking trust and buy-in.
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Set Intentions, Not Destinations By Sharon Moskowitz Last week we brought up the importance of empathy and active listening when working to build the master key to trust in your organization. We took a deep dive into ways to practice active listening and dispelled myths commonly associated with the tool. Spoiler Alert: You already hold … Read more