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Empathy in Leadership: Deep Listening for Better Connection

by Nov 1, 2021leadership0 comments

One of the major keys to success is being willing to have conversations you don’t feel like having. Sometimes, only the process of putting your feelings on the line will let you get your point across.

Of course, having a tough conversation isn’t a one-sided affair. Talking with someone else is an interaction, not a directive. And that means you have to make allowances for what someone else is saying.

It’s a challenge when you’re really insistent about getting every word out – but remember, you’re in an interaction.

And that means when you’re attending to someone else’s perspective, you ultimately have to start practicing ‘deep listening’.

Let’s take a dive into what this means.

Deep listening is a particularly active style of listening that fully acknowledges the perspective of the person you’re speaking with. It’s not about accepting everything they say – but it is about making sure you’re fully receptive to each point they make.

Consider this distillation of Deep Listening:
Deep listening springs from a desire to better understand a person or situation and authentically connect with them. When we listen deeply, we do so without judgment or preconceived ideas.[i]

This way of listening obviously goes beyond carefully tracking each point the person says. Instead, it goes far further to make a connection with that person. This requires a high degree of empathy, because suspending our judgment involves silencing that ‘inner voice’ that seeks to impose our worldview on others.

Deep Listening involves humility, which in turn requires a high degree of willingness to change your own predetermined views.

This sounds easy, but it’s hard. Our cherished perspectives are often invisible to us, because we take them completely for granted. Deep Listening, then, as well as requiring us to inhabit someone else’s perspective, also demands that we suspend our own.

This is a huge ask, and is exhausting to carry out successfully. But it’s also why the person who’s talking to you will appreciate Deep Listening so profoundly. By practicing Deep Listening, you’ve not only shown you’re willing to open yourself up to other perspectives – you’ve also signalled a willingness to put your ego completely on hold while you do this.

Consider the experience of listening to something you genuinely don’t want to hear. Your brain has many ways of subtly making sure that you ingest something without genuinely being swayed by it.

The internet has given us the perfect mechanism to engage in ‘shallow listening’ – seemingly attending to a conversation without actually respecting what it contains, or where it’s coming from. We do this ‘filtering’ unconsciously when we’re bombarded with thousands of opposing viewpoints on the internet every day. If we didn’t, we’d never get anything done.

Deep Listening is the exact opposite. It not only requires listening to each unfamiliar viewpoint you encounter, but also genuinely considering it.

This is hard for a good reason. If we feel as if a conversation is threatening our previously-held beliefs, we will gravitate towards filtering out the unwelcome viewpoint as ‘noise’ to avoid restructuring our entire worldview – a process which consumes huge quantities of energy.

Yet on a human-to-human level, we must resist the temptation to apply this dismissive ‘filter’.

You may have noticed, too, that the idea of Deep Listening is completely the opposite of what is usually thought of as ‘important conversations’. Instead of a hostile, charged atmosphere, we have a more congenial, understanding and empathetic one.

For this mode of Deep Listening to even begin, then, both speaker and listener must recognise each other as equals in this context. And that means it simply won’t work if conversation is viewed as a megaphone to cajole, influence, or even overwhelm others. Instead, it’s a mode of listening rooted in deep respect.

[i] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2020/01/30/reclaim-the-lost-art-of-deep-listening/?sh=262fc343d83d