Empathy is one of the most important leadership skills, and—let’s face it—empathy is one of the most important skills no matter what your role. A powerful way to demonstrate empathy is through attentive, active listening. But listening is harder than it sounds. New brain research suggests ways to be a better listener, and, as a result, more empathetic.
Unfortunately, listening has become less common as people are increasingly distracted, multitasking and giving continuous partial attention to many things at once. Hearing is something people do all the time, but listening takes effort. Historically, interpersonal skills gurus have emphasized the importance of intentional listening or active listening, but new brain research takes these to a new level.
Better Listening is Worth It
Building your listening skills is worth your effort for many reasons.
- Listening builds relationships. In a world where attention is one of the most scarce resources, giving attention and paying attention are demonstrations someone is important enough for your time and focus. And it’s always clear when people are listening or not, even through zoom calls. A recent study of over 2,000 people by New York University found listening built relationships and actually contributed to brain health and cognitive resilience for those who received listening support from others.
- Listening is connected with better performance. Listening is also important for better performance because it involves a deeper level of processing. Truly understanding and appreciating issues contributes to problem solving, follow up and thorough work—all of which make a positive difference in career growth and development.
- Listening helps memory. When deep listening occurs, it involves more parts of the brain and tends to embed topics more deeply, making them more accessible for recall later.
How to Make Listening a Superpower
You can be a better listener in a few ways.
Manage The Environment
Your situation and surroundings affect your ability to listen, so, as much as possible, manage the conditions for listening. If you’re with a colleague, close the door to the conference room or if you’re on a zoom call, turn down your show or your background music. While this may seem obvious, it’s not. People have become accustomed to having a wide variety of inputs coming at them at once, so being intentional about reducing background noise and distractions is no small thing.
In addition to turning off distractions which may be in the background, also manage your own mindset by focusing on the person you’re with. To start listening better, you can stop multi-tasking. Close the email you’re composing, minimize the window you’re accessing or close the screen which is drawing your attention away from the other person.
One of the hallmarks of truly listening, rather than just hearing, is when the brain is doing both auditory and visual processing. You can tune in more effectively to a co-worker by imagining what they’re saying and creating images as they’re talking. If they’re describing a difficult conversation with a customer, imagine the setting and the reactions. If they’re sharing the roadblocks they’re encountering with a tough project, picture the situation and the scene they’re describing.
Research from the University of Basel found movement tended to be connected with deeper processing and the act of listening. As you’re tuning into a coworker, consider standing up in the conference room or moving around just a bit during your zoom call.
As you’re listening, consider what your teammate must be thinking (cognitive empathy) or feeling (emotional empathy) based on the situation they’re describing. Putting yourself in their position and imagining their state of mind will help you feel closer to them, but it will also keep you engaged and demonstrate your compassion.
The University of Basel brain research also found listening was improved when a reward was involved, so remind yourself about how you’ll reap the benefits of listening through remembering more, performing better and building meaningful relationships.
Everyone hears, but really listening is a choice you can make in order to empathize, build relationships and create more happiness in your work and life through contributing and connecting more effectively. The typical New Year’s resolution doesn’t include better listening, but perhaps it should. A great 2022 will be characterized by connecting, empathizing and tuning in.