Active and Empathetic: How You Can Be a Better Listener

There’s never been a more important time to listen. 

“I had no idea.” Do you ever find yourself saying those words? True, you might not have known. But imagine you had the opportunity and simply didn’t pay attention. That’s why listening is so important.

Put simply, the definition of listening is to “give one’s attention to a sound.” That’s perfectly easy, right? As it turns out, you may be falling short when it comes to giving your undivided attention. You may think you are a good listener, but on average, we remember only about half of what we hear. And, if you have been zoning out or multitasking during a conversation, you haven’t been fully present to hear the half of it.

Of course, listening doesn’t simply include the verbal conversations you have. Listening—and giving your attention—is about putting in the time to truly hear what others have to say and understand the message. What do they want or need? Does something trouble or stress them? Do they have something that excites them? These may seem like simple questions. In many ways, they are. But they are also very revealing questions that can lead to important conversations. 

Active and Empathetic Listening

A conversation is a bit like a game of volleyball, right? You hit the ball and your partner lobs it back. You both want to keep the ball in the air. The game, or conversation, continues as long as it stays up there. 

Well, what if you weren’t trying to play a game of volleyball? That’s fine. Having a true conversation doesn’t have to be a series of your-turn, my-turn. Unfortunately, that’s often what we think of when we think of conversations.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. So, if you want to be more effective—as well as build better relationships—you should flip the script. Listen with the intent to understand.

Unfortunately, since so many of us fall short when it comes to fully listening, it might help to think deeper about the ways in which we listen. That means be an active and empathetic listener.

  • Active listening requires your full attention. It also requires you engage with both your body and your mind. You are not merely hearing the other person’s words, but you are paying attention to their body language. You are also demonstrating you are listening through your own body language and verbal cues. Think of being fully absorbed in a dramatic story—you leaned in toward the storyteller, widened your eyes, and nodded your head in encouragement. That’s active listening.  
  • Empathetic listening similarly requires your full emotional attention, and is a key part of being an active and engaged listener as well. In listening to the other person, you are emotionally connecting with them. In addition, you are receiving what they say with an open ear and an open heart. Think of an emotional conversation you had with a best friend. When they opened up to you, you might have considered how you would feel in that situation. Perhaps you also asked them how the situation made them feel.

Showing up to listen with your whole self is about engaging through active and empathetic listening.

Listening in the Workplace and Online

As marketers and communicators, we are in a special spot because listening is, quite frankly, the job. Specifically, in the workplace, good listening skills make you more: 

  • Productive, because you better understand your task and what is expected of you
  • Creative, because you are able to absorb and consider different viewpoints
  • Valued, because you are putting in the time to develop and grow relationships

Additionally, in marketing and social media, social listening may be a familiar term. Understanding your audience’s needs and wants impacts the content you provide. Oftentimes, your audience has already been sharing their interests, concerns, and motivations. But you might not be aware if you and your social team are not engaging in social listening.

Social listening—through a service like SproutSocial or active monitoring of a platform like Facebook or even NextDoor—should be a key part of your day-to-day operations. It’s like standing in the middle of your virtual town square and actually paying attention to what’s on the mind of your network. With proper social listening, you can discover everything from what products your customers are eager to purchase to what pains them as a community. True, it might not all be good news, but even a negative review can provide valuable information that will help you run your business in the best way possible.

Truly hearing what your audience needs and wants is especially important in a crisis. If you are not tuned in, you risk alienating your network, striking the wrong tone, or even damaging relationships. Of course, you don’t want to appear uninformed. But you also don’t want to appear insensitive. When you engage in social listening, you learn how to nimbly navigate your own community. You then have the power to respond to whatever situation may arise.

Creating a Dialogue Through Listening

As you can tell, listening is about so much more than hearing words. And that’s why when you fully engage and express a willingness to listen to others, you’re not simply in conversation. You’re creating community.

Improve your listening skills to grow and learn. When you take the time to hear what’s on someone’s mind, you expand your own worldview and create opportunity for yourself and others. If friends, colleagues, clients, and coworkers see you as a trusted ear, they will be more willing to continue to open up to you and involve you in discussion. And, by being that friendly ear, you are encouraging a healthy dialogue.

Remember, working in communications isn’t only about the messages you put out. It’s also about the messages you take home.

Series of telephones on wall waiting for listening