The Power of Workplace Listening

In the workplace, reaching a win/win resolution is often the goal. A huge step toward winning is to listen empathetically. The story of the Titanic could have had a happy ending if the captain had listened to the radio message warning of icebergs in the area. But he ignored the problem by not listening.

In conversations, a way to win is to listen. When he was a U.S. Senator, Lyndon Johnson had a plaque on his office wall that read, “You ain’t learnin’ nothing when you’re talking.”

Listening is an important skill that many of us take for granted. Have you ever explained a problem to someone and received an answer that showed that he or she didn’t understand the problem at all?

A big part of listening goes beyond getting the main point and drawing conclusions. Listening empathically, or with feelings, means putting yourself in the talker’s position without getting emotionally involved.

Empathic listening precedes effective feedback because it goes to the root of the concern: the other person’s perspective. Listening only to obtain information and form opinions means missing much of what the speaker is saying–the emotions and intensity that make up real communication.

For business, technical and personal problems, anything that provokes frustration or worry is emotion-laden by nature. Thus, any problem is better handled with an empathic approach.

Questions such as “What makes you feel that way?” allow the talker to go in the most comfortable direction, though not necessarily the direction you would have chosen. By giving the other person free rein, it’s easier for you to get into his or her shoes.

A good habit is to ask “one more question” before giving feedback. The answer you receive gives you a more realistic picture of what the talker really means. Your question might be, “What other factors are involved?” or “What other elements might influence the way we handle this problem?” or “What actions have you taken so far?”

Charles Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, expressed it this way: “I try to imagine the kind of doctor I’d like if I were you, and try to be that doctor.” (Fortunately, my own doctor seems to have that philosophy as well.)

By contrast, if you look at your watch, fidget, or look anxious as the talker is relating a problem, he or she may leave out key details. If you give the other person the impression that he or she is just wasting your time, you’re not likely to solve any problems. Have you ever been listening to someone who suddenly says, “I can tell this is a bad time…. We’ll talk about this later”?

Instead, show the other person that the most important thing for you at that moment is to listen. Tell your secretary to hold your calls, or close your door, or tell the talker, “Take as much time as you need.” With these actions, you’re more likely to get the details that go beyond the main problem and help you find solutions.

If you’re the manager, your employee may neglect important information because of your higher position. Therefore you must show that the talker’s ideas are valuable and that you really want to hear what he or she has to say.

Come out from behind your desk and sit together to create a feeling of equality and comfort. This encourages full disclosure and puts the speaker in a more receptive frame of mind. Even pulling up a chair to the side of your desk to sit next to each other, rather than across the desk, helps reduce tension.

When someone—and this could be friend or family member as well as a co-worker—comes to you with a problem, your first response may be to provide advice or a solution; sometimes, however, all the other person wants is someone to listen. If you listen before advising, you’re more likely to understand first. When you have a grasp of the situation, then you can offer suggestions.

Often, if you’re listening empathetically, the talker solves his or her own problem. For example, have you ever told your problems to someone who just listened? Chances are, by the time you talked your way through it, you had actually come up with your own solution. Empathic listening encourages this to happen.

People problems are usually the most difficult to solve because of personal emotions. A sure way to win is to listen until resolution of the problem is achieved.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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