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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why Empathetic Listening Is Crucial for Your Career—and How to Do It Well

two coworkers sitting at a table with laptops open having a conversation
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When it comes to improving communication in the workplace, you may have learned how to give better presentations, more clearly articulate your ideas, and even influence others through better pitches, decks, and speeches. But you might not have focused as much on honing the other side of the equation: listening skills.

Becoming a better listener comes with real advantages in the workplace. Effective listening helps you to understand others better, allowing you to get your work done on time. It enables you to improve partnerships with your peers and thereby collaborate more effectively. It can even help you shift the balance of your relationship with your manager from head-scratching (What did their feedback mean?) to aligned.

And there’s one type of listening that deserves extra attention for its quietly powerful impact on your career: empathetic listening.

What Is Empathetic Listening?

At its core, empathetic listening is about connection. Empathetic listening is what happens when you deliberately slow things down and seek to understand others’ inner worlds. It means taking in what another person is saying—or not saying—with the intent to understand and relate to them on a human level.

It’s similar to its counterpart, active listening, in that both kinds of listening require giving your full attention to another person in order to better understand them. But unlike active listening, empathetic listening puts a special emphasis on understanding the other person’s emotional experience. Where active listening may readily result in a list of action items, empathetic listening is focused on a stronger connection among teammates and a clearer understanding of another person’s needs, motivations, and perceptions. (Sure, this information can also help you get to a better to-do list or set of action items, but these would be the byproducts of building a stronger relationship with someone, rather than the first-level goal.)

Empathetic listening asks you to go beyond the surface of what is being said to unpack why and how it’s being said and get to know someone’s emotional experience—and empathize with it. This kind of listening goes beyond the literal, and even beyond the subtext of what’s been said, to the emotion beneath it.

Through empathetic listening, you can create a space in which others feel safe being themselves, laying the foundation for open and honest communication between both the speaker and the listener.

Why Is Empathetic Listening Important for Your Career?

Practicing empathetic listening has many positive outcomes in the workplace. It:

  • Builds emotional intelligence: When you practice empathetic listening, you become attuned to others’ emotional experiences and can begin to understand their behavior more clearly and consider the best response. More specifically, it allows you to understand what your colleagues might need from you. For example, it becomes much easier to see what your teammates need in order to confidently get their project over the finish line, when your direct report can use your support, or when your manager must get something off their chest.
  • Improves collaboration: When you understand what motivates your teammates, you can help them take on roles within the team that tap into those motivations. You can also understand when others’ personal needs may be getting in the way of connecting and avoid taking it personally, such as when a too-tired parent and colleague struggles to stay focused in conversation. When interpersonal conflicts do arise, you can more quickly understand what brought you to this crossroads and bounce back from it.
  • Strengthens relationships: When you practice empathetic listening, you continuously invite others to be themselves and open up. Over time, these interactions build trust, encourage vulnerability, and form the basis for long-lasting relationships.
  • Creates a safe and inclusive environment: When you commit to understanding others without judgment and to empathizing with them despite your differences, you create an environment in which it’s safe to be yourself, no matter your background. Listening with empathy also helps you spot when a colleague’s behavior may be unfairly interpreted, when a team strategy may fail to invite all voices in, and when a change in approach is warranted in order to be more inclusive.

The Traits of an Empathetic Listener

There are three core traits of empathetic listening that together I call a listening mindset:

  • Humility: This means committing to meeting your conversation partner where they are, without expectations. This also entails releasing yourself from the assumption that you already have the answer, in order to stay open to others’ ideas and opinions. In other words, humility means being open to being wrong.
  • Curiosity: This means being open to learning more about a topic, idea, or person, even if it doesn’t initially pique your interest, and asking yourself, “What else can I learn?” if you feel you’re an expert in a topic already.
  • Empathy (naturally!): This means imagining what someone else might be feeling rather than focusing on your own feelings, experiences, or reactions. Even if you don’t have firsthand experience with something, bringing empathy to the fore means trying to relate to the underlying feelings that may be driving the conversation.

How Can You Practice Empathetic Listening?

To demonstrate empathetic listening, try putting these steps into action in your next conversation.

1. Stay Present

Quiet your inner monologue, set your device aside, and draw your attention to the other person. If a thought, to-do, or inspiring idea begins to get in the way, trust that you’ll remember it if it’s truly important and will be able to come back to it later. To help you tame your thoughts in the moment, simply notice them, label them (“That’s my insecurity making its way in,” or, “This is my stress responding.”) and move on.

2. Observe Nonverbal Cues

Pay attention to both what is said and unsaid. Observe nonverbal cues such as:

  • Body language (and particularly how much or how little space someone takes up in the room, which can tell you something about others’ confidence and ease with a given topic or in the presence of certain company)
  • Pitch (people may subconsciously lower their voices to project authority or raise them in the presence of authority)
  • Pacing (a sudden change in speech pace can indicate a change in emotion)

3. Ask Connecting Questions

Try to stay away from leading, biased, close-ended questions that often elicit a one word or “yes” or “no” response. Instead, try asking what I call connecting questions—usually beginning with “what” or “how”—so others can lead the way in their response. For example, instead of, “Did you think that meeting went poorly?” ask, “How do you think that meeting went?” to stay neutral and understand your teammate’s position.

4. Adapt to What’s Needed

Everyone has what I call a default listening mode, an instinctive way of showing up in conversation. You might be a natural problem-solver, always ready to provide solutions at a moment’s notice. Or maybe you’re a born mediator, most comfortable looking at ideas from all angles to avoid placing blame (or giving credit) unevenly. These are worthy listening modes, but they aren’t always what’s needed. Offer advice too often when it’s uncalled for, or dissect an argument from all angles out of context, and your response can fail to meet others’ needs in conversation—not the strongest foundation for building a relationship.

Instead of relying on your default mode, gut check your instinctive response to see if it’s actually called for, or if a different response—such as providing encouragement, validation, or even approval—is in order. If you aren’t sure what’s needed, try asking something like, “Would it be helpful to hear my advice on this?” or, “I have some ideas about how to proceed—would you be open to that?” If you’re not sure where to even start, asking simply, “Would you like me to listen or respond?” can move the conversation in the right direction.

5. Play Back What You’re Hearing

To ensure you’re interpreting others correctly, and especially in situations with many or competing voices, it’s best to play back what you’re hearing and confirm your comprehension. This ensures that you don’t walk away with incorrect information or unfounded assumptions. Phrases like, “What I think I’m hearing is… Is that right?” or “It sounds like… Does that capture it?” can help.

6. Redirect to Include Others

When your listening powers are attuned, you might begin to pick up on more than simply what’s being said. You can see when a colleague is hogging the mic or taking the group off-topic or when a shy peer attempts to interject but is cut off by a more enthusiastic teammate. Listening in this way gives you the means to facilitate the conversation to include all voices. Try these phrases to ensure everyone is included: “I appreciate the input. How does that resonate with everyone else?” or “Thank you for that context. What else do people think?”

When you bring empathetic listening into your one-on-one chats, team meetings, and brainstorms, you get to know your colleagues much more deeply. In knowing what makes people tick, what needs may be at stake in a given conversation, and how someone’s feeling in the moment, you can respond in a way that’s more supportive and appropriate. Ultimately, it’ll help you collaborate and communicate more effectively— and empathetically.

Adapted from Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection by Ximena Vengoechea, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ximena Vengoechea, 2021.