Empathetic Listening: Does It Really Pay?

“You may regret calamities if you can thereby help the sufferer, but if you cannot, mind your own business.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (Journals, 1836)

You read so much about the importance of listening these days. Every social, academic, and, now, even every business guru is jumping on this bandwagon. The idea, in a nutshell, has two, er, nuts:

1. If you don’t know what the other guy is saying, you won’t be able to be of any help to him.

2. If you show the other guy that you care about him (by listening attentively), he’ll be more open to your suggestions — and more grateful for your time.

“To inspire others,” the newsletter Executive Leadership states, “leaders must show real concern for others. One of the best ways to do that is through empathetic listening.”

Communications guru Adele Lynn agrees. In “The Emotional Intelligence Activity Book,” Lynn says that good listeners “keep an open mind to criticism and bad news, understand the whole message,” and — most importantly — “respect” and “value” the other person.

Teachers of good listening say you should:

* pay attention to body language

* make encouraging sounds and gestures

* ask specific, supportive questions

And Executive Leadership cautions you against:

* nodding and “yes-ing” the speaker while thinking about something else

* interrupting a speech to voice your own opinion

* digressing when something comes up that you find “more interesting”

* rebutting ideas right off the bat

* cutting off “venting” to give advice

My take? Balderdash. You don’t have to empathize to be a good listener. Or a good leader. In fact, doing so may work against you.

“Empathy” — as one of my graduate-school professors used to remind me — “is what sophomores say when they mean to say ‘sympathy.'”

Here’s the problem with making empathy your primary objective: If your business goal is big, ambitious, and complex (as it should be), it is going to cause your subordinates a good deal of stress and pain. When stress and pain are present, some people complain — and feel justified in doing so. But the moment you divert the conversation from how to get the goal accomplished to how to make Harry or Anne feel better about it, you are on a slippery downhill slope — with the end result that you become a worker, your subordinate becomes your boss, and the goal becomes obliterated.

In the world of business, people make arrangements (“I’ll do this for you, if you do this for me”). If you are honorable, you stick with your deal. If circumstances change so much that it’s impossible to honor the deal, you may change the conditions and/or requirements — or you can quit.

When someone asks for your help, tells you about his problems, or simply complains about how tough his life is, your best strategy is to move the conversation — as quickly as possible — back to where it needs to be: the business objective.

The best way to do that, in my view, is to do one of the things you are not supposed to do:

* interrupt with a disarming comment or joke

* pick up on a word or remark and “transition” into what you want to talk about

* rebut something that’s incorrect

If you refrain from feeling angry at this person for taking up your valuable time with his problems and questions, you’ll be able to redirect him without making him feel too bad. But don’t worry too much about that. Be mannerly and get him back to his job.

The best trick I know is to say something like, “John, I can understand how concerned you are about whatnot, and I’m eager for you to find a solution. So why don’t you come back to me with three possible solutions that meet your concerns and also support our goal of such and such.”

Say that and end the meeting. You’ll be doing yourself — and your interlocutor — a favor.

Tomorrow, I’ll suggest a way to handle chronic complainers — those who wouldn’t respond to this kind of sensible approach.