Listening, Understanding and Business Empathy

Better leaders and better managers are, above all, better listeners — to others but also to themselves.

Listening to the Self

Many busy executives spend virtually every free moment checking their schedules to see what needs to be done next, making a phone call to progress a project or get the ball in someone else’s court, checking phone messages to see what new tasks have now been created for them and await ticking off on the list. But while many are actually remarkably good at prioritizing this work and managing time efficiently, this often comes at the cost of actually listening to their own judgements about what is really important — or listening to their own creative insights about strategic or tactical direction. The daily schedule becomes like a surrogate brain, relieving the busy executive of the responsibility to think for themselves about what they believe they should be doing, as distinct from what the timetable says they should be doing.

But the really inspired manager or leader extends the same patience and respect that it takes to listen to others, described below, to themselves. It might seem like a trivial matter to really listen to the self, to appreciate the self’s own perspective, but in fact it is not at all trivial. It is all too easy for the self to lose its own voice in the cacophony of activity in the outside world. Listening to the self means first respecting the self enough and giving it enough space to have its say amidst all the din. It means then actually paying attention to what it has to say, valuing its insights and instincts and analyses at least as much as all those floating around in the outside world. It also means accepting what you hear honestly, setting aside the temptation to distort or deny it.

The self is a tremendous source of business advantage, knowledge, insight and creative direction, but it is also easily ignored.

A good mentor or coach helps develop the trait of listening to the self by:

  1. Listening to you,
  2. Exploring with you the inherent business and personal value in your own internal resources, and
  3. Exploring with you any impediments to making full use of your internal resources, and ways of developing them further.

‘Business Empathy’

Call it ‘business empathy’: the better manager and the better leader can understand what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, whether it be those of another team member, those of a direct report, or those of a competitor. They can get inside the perspective of another and walk around for awhile as if it were their own world, not just in terms of the mechanics of discharging a particular business function, but in terms of what it is like for the real person to be performing that function. Really grasping what it is like for another person arguably presupposes an ability to identify your own internal emotions, thoughts and instincts — and to be honest with yourself about them.

What does a good manager or a good leader actually do when it comes to displaying business empathy? Three main characteristics describe the concrete actions behind business empathy.

Listening, Really Listening

Business empathy means really listening — not using the time another person is speaking to formulate what you are going to say next, but actually quieting your own mind to give the other person’s words space to settle. It means not second-guessing or evaluating what the other person is saying, or noting where they have gone wrong; it means taking the time to understand exactly what they are saying, even if you think it is completely wrong. It means you are probably more likely to respond to someone else’s statement not by stating your own view, but by asking a clarifying question or by restating what you think you have heard to check your understanding (see below).

Imagining

Business empathy means imagining what it is like to be doing the job of the other person — not as you, but as them. In other words, it doesn’t mean imagining what you would hypothetically be experiencing if you were in their position, but understanding what they are actually experiencing in their position. It means suspending, for a moment, your own views and values and constraints and replacing them with what you understand to be those of the other, imagining how the world now looks to someone else.

Checking and Communicating Understanding

Finally, business empathy also means checking and communicating your understanding of the other person. It doesn’t mean saying “yes, I understand” and then moving on to your own view. It means taking the time to state your understanding from the other person’s perspective, even if that understanding seems so obvious to you that no one could possibly misunderstand. This acts as a check on your understanding, so the other person can correct you if it is wrong; but just as importantly, it also enables the other person to recognize that you have really understood. It answers the question “how is the other person to know that you really do understand?”.

A good coach or mentor helps develop business empathy by:

  1. Empathically listening to you,
  2. Exploring with you your conception of what it is like to be someone else in your business environment, and
  3. Challenging your imagination and introducing other possible perspectives of business competitors and collaborators alike.

This article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser on .

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