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Empathy vs. Active Listening

by Eric Baker
on 2018-02-08

When considering which personal qualities we like in others, we should be able to reach consensus around the trait known as empathy. Empathy represents the capacity to appreciate different experiences and perspectives, as well as the potential to read people’s emotional cues. One rarely says “she’s an empathetic person” as an insult.

Imagine you are a 6’8” car salesperson, single, with an adventurous lifestyle. A 5’1” father comes into the showroom to look at sport utility vehicles, accompanied by his one-year-old twins in a double stroller. Are you going to lead with your model’s ample legroom and impressive off-roading capabilities, or are you likely to emphasize cargo space and safety features?

(If the answer isn’t obvious, you may need to work on your empathy.)

A good car salesperson reading this article might say, “Wait a minute. You can’t just assume those things are important to the guy because he’s got kids. Maybe he already owns a family car and is looking for some weekend fun.”

Right! Which is where active listening comes in. It’s practically built into the process for selling directly to consumers. You ask questions, listen for cues, and adapt your presentation accordingly. Anyone who has worked retail sales is taught, on day one, to ask some variation of “How do you plan to use this [item]?”

However, it’s a little trickier when the interplay is between manager and employee.

Pretend Clive is the manager of Department X, which designs robot dinosaurs (hey, it’s my article). Jennifer, who worked successfully in another part of the company for several years, transferred to Department X two weeks ago. She was known as upbeat and engaging before, but she seems more subdued now.

Clive views himself as an empathetic manager. He understands that employees tend to build up a comfort level, both socially and skill-wise, when they’re in one role for a long time, and they may suddenly feel apprehensive when placed in a new situation. He also knows there’s a lot to learn, and that most employees want to impress their new manager and avoid mistakes, which often takes focus away from interpersonal engagement. On the other hand, she could have a personal issue, which is none of his business except to the extent that it could eventually affect her work performance.

Jennifer’s new manager is applying his empathy in a number of ways. Her personal, educational, and professional experience is different from his, and he’s not only sensitive to that but appreciative of how experiential diversity can improve a team. He’s also aware that they both have different communication styles and work styles. He believes it’s important, for the sake of maximizing business results and integrating her into the department, to figure out the most effective ways for those styles to mesh.

Clive is being empathetic, but is he attentively, actively listening when she talks?

Active listening involves putting aside your needs, expectations, and biases; clearing your head of past and future thoughts so only the present matters; and, most importantly, waiting until a response is needed before offering one. 

Once Clive tries active listening, he learns that Jennifer is taking to her new tasks just fine. Part of her less-engaging demeanor is, as he surmised, a temporary artifact of her unfamiliarity with her team members. However, her main concern is his dismissal of her ideas. His efforts to make her feel less pressured about immediate success were interpreted as “I’m interested in task completion, not your opinions about the way we run the business.”

Jennifer wasn’t trying too hard to impress her boss; she was trying to show that she can contribute on many levels. She didn’t feel apprehensive; she felt undervalued and underestimated. Even if you’re sensitive to emotional cues, those reactions can look alike when you’re not asking the right questions.

By listening to understand instead of listening to respond, Clive was able to find the right leadership balance for Jennifer: A continued focus on completing the essential tasks for which she was brought in, as well as a stretch assignment to choose one idea for business improvement, research it, and present her recommendations to management at an appropriate, scheduled time.

Active listening can also help a sales professional in a B-to-B scenario build better partnerships with clients, support a service rep in trying to address customer complaints in a more targeted manner, or even aid our own understanding of why team members and colleagues act the way they do. Active listening takes effort and self-training but, when combined with an empathetic mindset, can foster a deeper understanding between you and your stakeholders … and a more productive work environment.