Applied EQ #35:  Empathetic Listening

Applied EQ #35: Empathetic Listening

In our last post we introduced Empathy for project managers.  Empathy is one of the competencies of Social Awareness.  Empathy includes:

  • The ability to read the spoken and unspoken thoughts and feelings of others
  • The appreciation of those thoughts and feelings and why others have them
  • The capacity to respect & value people from diverse backgrounds and culturesOne of the key applications of empathy is empathetic listening.  What is empathetic listening?  Empathetic listening is a way of listening without judgment.  Empathic listening is when we 1) focus on the words and behavior of another, 2) without judgment and 3) periodically summarizing what they think, feel, and need in the moment.  That seems like a pretty tall order and one that requires a little more explanation.

    Empathetic listening is considerably different than just plain old listening.  Many of us listen half-heartedly, attempt to multi-task, or view listening as a pause which allows us to gather our thoughts before we can continue with our own monologue.  We might consider that pathetic listening.

    Empathetic listening is when we give ourselves over to the other person and listen with their best interest in mind.  Project managers that master empathetic listening benefit by:

  1. Making the speaker feel valued and important.
  2. Improving the depth of the communication.
  3. Understanding the underlying emotions, which adds richness to the conversation.
  4. Building trust and the relationship with the other.

So what do we do as project managers to get better at empathetic listening?  Consider applying the following techniques to enhance your empathetic listening skills:

  1. Let them speak – When we listen empathetically, we simply let the other person speak.  We avoid “helping” the speaker by providing verbal, or nonverbal clues, or by finishing sentences.  When we jump in and help others with what they are trying to say, we unintentionally inject our own agenda.  We may unknowingly “steer” the speaker toward what we want or expect them to say instead of simply letting them take the conversation where it needs to go. 
  2. Maintain eye contact – When we are listening empathetically, we should maintain eye contact with the speaker.  This provides the speaker the space to say what they need to say.  Note that this doesn’t mean we should be staring them down or boring in with our best “Dirty Harry” scowl.  It does mean looking at the speaker with a neutral expression, providing minimal feedback, and breaking eye contact periodically if it becomes uncomfortable. 
  3. Give the speaker your full attention – As PMs, we often are trying to accomplish several things at once.  In our efforts to be productive, we might be trying to multi-task while we are listening.  Empathetic listening is a single thread activity.  It doesn’t work to try and multi-task.You probably know how it feels to have someone multi-task while listening.  Have you ever been talking to someone at their office and find that as they are listening to you they are reading their PC screen?  Or looking over your shoulder to see someone else?  Have you ever been speaking to someone when their cell phone rang and they immediately turned away from you to see who was calling?  This kind of behavior shows that the speaker is not valued.  It feels dismissive.


  4. Playback and Summarize – When we listen empathetically, we should periodically repeat back what we heard to make sure that we understand what was being said.  This provides the speaker an opportunity to restate or clarify anything that was misunderstood.

    As an example, consider a team member who comes to you with a concern.  They tell you that they are hurt by the actions of Bob, their co-worker.  You might say “let me see if I have this straight, you feel dismissed by Bob when he doesn’t say positive things about your contribution to the deliverable”.  In this way, they have the opportunity to either agree or clarify the concern. 

  5. Orient to Emotions – Empathetic listening involves interpreting the thoughts and feelings of another.  In addition to playing back what we hear and summarizing it, we should also add feeling words to what we say.  “That sounds frustrating”, or “you seem angry” might be appropriate to the team member in the previous example. 
  6. Try on Their Shoes – Trying on someone shoes requires us to imagine ourselves in their situation as we listen.  We need to do this in a compassionate way and not come at it from a superior, “boy are you screwed” point of view.  We need to be thinking, what would it be like to be that person right now?  What would I be feeling in that situation?  This sounds more difficult then it really is, we just need to use our imagination.
  7. Suspend our Agenda – Empathetic listening requires us to suspend our own judgments, needs, and priorities and focus on the other person.  This is a skill that requires some practice.  Listening without regard for our own agenda is very generous and self-less.

What we do with what we heard during our empathetic listening is also important.  I personally find it easy to jump in and problem-solve or to use this as an opportunity to apply my own autobiography on others by telling them how I solved the same problem.  The temptation is to simply tell them to be like me and solve it the way I did.  It doesn’t work with my wife and it doesn’t work in the project environment.  This is not terribly empathetic or effective.

A more effective approach is to simply say, “that sounds tough”, “how can I help?” or “what support do you need from me right now?”  This puts the focus on the speaker where it belongs.   Many times you will find that the speaker is not asking for us to solve the problem.  They may realize during the course of the discussion what they need to do next.  They often don’t need (or want) us to do anything – they simply needed to be heard.  If we proceed to tell them what to do to solve the problem when they simply want to be heard, we risk alienating them.  They will probably come away thinking that we are superior, uncaring, or unsupportive.  In addition, we take on the work of that person instead of empowering them to solve their own problems.

One of the best and most memorable comments I received from a team member was a few years ago.  This guy had worked for me for about 6 months when he said this.  “You always ask me what you can do to support me” he said.  I wish I were more consistent with this behavior frankly.

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