Providing an empathetic ear helps show that you care about another person's problems. Showing empathy also helps to build trust and demonstrates a supportive attitude. All of these represent beneficial traits for the relationship between managers and employees.
After all, managers exist to support employees and to help problem-solve. By understanding and connecting with employees during vulnerable times, the rapport between managers and employees can grow.
Although it's vital to all of our relationships and communications, empathy is a skill we have to learn and practice. If you feel like you missed the boat when it came to learning how to empathize effectively, don't worry. You can learn how empathetic listening techniques can assist you both in the workplace and in everyday life.
What Is Empathy?
When people feel empathy for others, they can understand that person's feelings, thoughts and situation.
In order to realize the importance of empathy in our relationships and everyday lives, just imagine a world without it: your partner wouldn't comfort you when you felt sad, your friends wouldn't celebrate milestones with you and your boss wouldn't care about how stressed you felt about your workload.
Maybe that last example isn't so far-fetched. You may have experienced an un-empathetic attitude in the workplace. In fact, if you're in charge of managing employees, you need to take a look at your own behavior. Are you empathetic?
Three Types of Empathy
Psychologists have determined that three types of empathy exist:
- Cognitive empathy: Being able to understand a person's feelings.
- Emotional empathy: Having the ability to feel what another person feels.
- Compassionate empathy: Empathy that causes people to act in order to try to help the other person.
Of course, you can have all three types of empathy working together simultaneously. But for empathetic management in the workplace, perhaps cognitive empathy and compassionate empathy represent the major players. You don't need to (or necessarily want to) feel an employee's stress in order to understand that they're stressed. But you should also try to help an employee once you know what's going on.
The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace
Everyone is born with a capacity to develop empathy, but it's something that we actively learn over time. We also learn when to display empathy. For example, you wouldn't hesitate to comfort a child who falls and hurts themselves. You understand the pain they feel and know they also need you to help them feel safe again.
On the other hand, we might hold back on showing empathy in other scenarios. For example, the business world has a reputation for being intense, and managers do not always empathize or sympathize with struggling employees. Instead, upper management might take a "get over it" approach.
This is neither necessary nor recommended. Why shouldn't we show empathy for employees who struggle to meet a deadline, fall behind on work due to illness, etc.? It happens to everyone, and we know how stressful it can be to not have the proper support. Empathy, especially empathetic listening, can go a long way toward improving employee morale and preventing burnout.
What Is Empathetic Listening?
Empathetic listening is a part of active listening in which you specifically seek to understand the other person's feelings and thoughts. In active listening, you showcase your interest in the speaker through your body language, such as turning your shoulders toward them and making eye contact.
Empathetic listening specifically aims to show that you understand what the other person feels. Try not to interrupt often, but do ask clarifying questions that show you're making an effort to understand them. Restate the speaker's concerns to demonstrate your understanding. If you've ever been in a similar scenario, briefly relate the story to put the speaker at ease.
Anyone can learn how to apply empathy to the active listening process, and it is especially important for managers to learn and practice.
Why Empathetic Listening Matters for Management
When employees have concerns, frustrations or problems, they want to know that they'll be heard and taken seriously by management. When this proves true time and time again, they gain a sense of trust and loyalty for management and the company. Employees who feel like they have a voice at their job are also less likely to feel the effects of burnout.
If you don't listen actively or with empathy, employees will feel like it's useless to ask you for advice or assistance. Their stress levels will increase whenever they hit a bump in the road because they won't feel like they have supportive management to lean on.
In order to have a team that feels comfortable coming to you at the first sign of a problem, start practicing empathetic listening. Don't save these listening skills for the office if you want to truly master them; incorporate empathetic listening into your daily life to make it second nature.
Empathetic Listening Solves Problems
As a manager, what do you do every day? One way to sum up your work could be to say you solve problems or try to avoid them in the first place. When an employee has a problem, you need to solve it efficiently and effectively to avoid interrupting the overall workflow.
But to solve a problem, you have to understand it. This is where empathetic listening comes into play. You must understand not only what is physically happening ("the printer has a paper jam") but also what this means for employees' thoughts and emotions ("the staff feels stressed because they can't complete their work without the printer, and they worry about being chastised for poor productivity").
This allows you to not only tackle the problem quickly, but also provide reassurance or emotional support as necessary. Thus, you can handle the situation from all angles, and your employees grow to trust you even more.
How to Develop Empathetic Listening Skills
In addition to practicing your best active listening skills, you also need to create a "judgment-free zone" in your mind when listening to someone with empathy. Your goal is not to step in right away with advice or to judge, patronize or otherwise devalue what the other person is saying. Your goal is to listen and understand what the other person is thinking and feeling.
Practice repeating what the other person says or how you believe the other person is feeling and get their feedback on it. They'll let you know if you're on your way to understanding. If they start to act frustrated because you aren't "getting it", stop speaking and go back to listening.
After the other person has said their piece, you can clarify what they would like you to do: did they just need you to listen to their frustrations? Do they need advice about what to do? Do they need you to step in and do something to help? Often, people just need to talk out their problems and feel like someone cares.
Learn As You Go
You'll develop and fine-tune your empathetic listening skills over your entire life, as long as you have the desire to do so. Mistakes will happen. Learn from them. And if you're ever in any doubt about what to do, just keep asking questions.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.