I consider myself to be a good listener. Perhaps it comes naturally to me as an introvert, but I’ve also developed the quality of my listening to an exquisite level over the course of a 35-year career in journalism. During that time, I have conducted countless interviews with pop stars, rock gods, film stars and other notables in the entertainment industry.
When I first started out as an interviewer, I was terrified of silences. I didn’t want my interviewees to think that I didn’t know what to ask next. But, as I developed my technique, I created more and more space in which the interviewees could reflect. There was always the hope that they would drop their guard and tell me something they hadn’t told a journalist before. And that did occasionally happen.
Now that I’m a coach and trainer, my well-honed listening skills have come into their own. I am not afraid of silence. I rarely interrupt. But it’s the calibre of my listening that’s important. It’s not passive – it’s 100 per cent present and curious.
When I started doing some research for this article, I discovered that there’s a name for what I do instinctively: empathic listening.
There are many types of listening
Did you know there are many different types of listening? There’s discriminative, informational, comprehensive, evaluative, selective, rapport, appreciative, false, deep, judgmental, sympathetic, relationship and, finally, empathic listening.
According to the mental wellbeing resource optimistminds.com: “Empathic listening is essential in cultivating quality relationships. It creates human connection, closeness, appreciation and affection.”
When you listen to someone empathically, they feel respected. You can build trust. You can build understanding. You can go deeper. The empathic listener is fully attuned to the speaker’s mental and emotional state. It makes the speaker feel heard, appreciated and valued.
To listen with empathy is about much more than hearing what someone says. It’s about truly understanding what someone is saying, from their unique perspective. You must imagine walking a mile in their shoes. You must stop mind-reading or filtering someone else’s experience through your own.
Empathic listening doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with the person speaking, but you are more likely to understand their motivations, feelings and behaviours.
A good empathic listener listens more than they speak. They are open-minded and ask open questions. They will not jump in with a story about themselves. They will say: “What I’m hearing is…” to check with the speaker that they fully understand the meaning of what has been said.
Tips on how to become a better listener
Avi Kluger, a professor of organisational behaviour at the School of Business at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the destructive effects of performance feedback for more than 20 years, including meta-analyses of listening.
He says: “Listening resembles a muscle. It requires training, persistence, effort, and most importantly, the intention to become a good listener.”
In a fascinating article published by the Harvard Business Review, he lists his tips on becoming a better listener. Here’s a summary:
- Give 100 per cent of your attention, or do not listen. The advice he gives here is about constant eye contact – but this applies equally if you can’t see the person who is speaking. You can still set the intention of paying full attention.
- Do not interrupt. Resist the temptation to jump in and comment while the speaker is speaking.
- Do not judge or evaluate. Listen without jumping to conclusions or trying to interpret what you’re hearing.
- Do not impose your solutions. The role of the listener is to help the speaker come up with their own solutions.
- Ask more (good) questions. Listeners shape conversations by coming up with questions that help the speaker to dive deeper into their thoughts and experiences.
- Reflect. When you finish a conversation, reflect on the quality of your listening and whether you missed any opportunities to be a better listener.
Reviewing this list, I believe I score well on each item – but there’s always room for improvement. I still find myself wanting to interject if I’ve had a flash of insight that I need to share before it disappears. However well-intentioned, that still counts as an interruption.
Many of these tips can be applied to written communications such as text conversations or chats. I find that Zgmund App’s anonymous emotional support groups offer the ideal opportunity to improve my listening skills. The groups offer a safe environment in which I can follow Avi Kluger’s suggestions and strengthen my listening muscle.
Furthermore, Zgmund’s ‘Emotional Insights’ help me to gauge the emotional undertone of the conversation, which is sometimes lost or left unsaid.
My advice to other users of Zgmund App, and anyone who wants to be a better listener, is to be curious, ask good questions and resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. That way, everyone in the conversation will feel valued and respected.
Also, if your company or organisation wants to automate empathic listening or use AI to enrich conversations with emotional understanding, try Zgmund Psychological API, which powers these ‘Emotional Insights’. It’s a technology that can be adapted to your specific needs.