Leadership Notes: The art of listening with empathy

raj narayanMany years ago, my boss called me over to his room for a chat on the future of our division, the newest in the organization. As a conversation starter, he asked me to guide him through the highlights and low-lights of the first two quarters.

The list was long for the former though he appeared to latch on to something I listed under the ‘not-so-high-lights’. To my comment that the team had to often be ‘spoon-fed’ ideas, he quizzed: “Why? Aren’t they hungry enough?”

The conversation meandered along for a while and before winding up, my boss (a career journalist turned administrator) said, “Is it that the team doesn’t have ideas? Or is that you do not give them a chance to share it with you?” To my almost immediate protesting looks, he added, “Don’t answer, think it over.”

Close a decade-and-half later, I continue to ask myself the question: I think I am a good listener, but do people around me think so too? Surprise, surprise! A recent 360-degree indicated that things had barely changed.

In the corporate world, programs for verbal communication are a-dime-a-dozen. How to give a speech? How to make a presentation? How to chair a meeting? How to discuss KRAs and the list goes on… Ever wondered why then is the other half of this equation treated shabbily?

Studies abound across the academic world about how people comprehend only about 25% of what they hear. Else, why would the pet peeve among unhappily married couple be a standard “You Do Not Listen to Me”? Or why would talented managers jump jobs with a ‘my boss doesn’t listen to me’ plaint?

Harry Levinson, the renowned management consultant takes a step forward and suggests that instant reaction is a human frailty. We mistake reaction for action. He writes in his bestselling book ‘Ready, Fire, Aim: Avoiding Management by Impulse’ that it’s only after listening intently that a leader can hope to make consistently decent decisions.

However, the challenge is to actually listen with empathy. Executive Coach Marshall Goldsmith suggests that while people cannot really tell if one is listening or not, they assume the truth from our body language. How many times have we looked into our computer screens or mobile phones while talking to someone? Especially those who are down-lines?

The outcome of such ‘listless’ listening can be disastrous as solutions might end up being way off the mark. Ernesto Sirolli, a global expert on sustainable development has this hilarious view of how western aid efforts often fall flat because of their inherently prescriptive nature. (The Ted Talk)

Having established that listening is the intelligent part of a conversation, how does one get to excel at it? There are no shortcuts. Suffice to say that as one grows in a hierarchy, one tends to flit in and out of conversations, often missing out on the really good stuff being bandied about.

The only way one can listen with empathy (care) is to first let realization dawn that listening is actually an active process and not a passive one. A quick test to active listening is to try and paraphrase what the other person has just said.

If you thought taking notes might be a better option, think again! For, how many e-mail trails do you recall that made a pig’s breakfast of the minutes of an important meeting?