Emotionally Intelligent People Use the 5 Rules of Empathetic Listening to Build Stronger, Deeper Relationships

Years ago I worked with a supervisor named Jon who excelled at making me feel heard, and valued. Besides always showing interest in me as a person, whenever I had something important to talk about, he made himself available to speak–even on short notice.

He’d start off the conversation with a question like the one above. And then …

He wouldn’t fill the awkward silence with his own thoughts.

These conversations taught me the value of true empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. I learned firsthand how demonstrating empathy puts you in a position of trust–and all values ​​people they can trust.

And while Jon’s ability to empathize seemed superhuman at the time, the skill he demonstrated is 100 percent learnable. By developing it, you’ll strengthen your own empathy muscle beyond what you might imagine.

What is empathetic listening? Why is it so important? And how can you develop this skill to help you in your own business and life?

(If you find value in the five rules of empathetic listening, you might be interested in my emotional intelligence course–which includes 20 more rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the course here.)

Why empathetic listening is so important

The concept of empathetic listening is simple: It’s listening with the goal of relating to the feelings of the person you’re speaking with. But to understand why listening is so crucial to developing empathy, it helps to have a little background on the science behind it all.

For years, researchers underestimated the power of listening. For example, to evaluate emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions, many scientists use assessments that ask test-takers to read facial expressions and then choose the emotion they think a person is demonstrating.

There’s a big problem with this: Facial expressions can mean different things coming from different people. A smile can signal joy or sadness, depending on the person, and the context. Or, a person may use a facial expression to mask what they truly feel underneath.

More recent research supports this understanding. Michael Kraus of Yale University led one study in which researchers tasked more than 1,800 participants with the goal of accurately identifying the emotions of others. Through five experiments, individuals were asked to interact with another person or to observe an interaction between two people.

In different cases, participants were allowed to:

  • only listen and not look;
  • look but not listen; or
  • both look and listen.

Kraus found that on average, those who were tasked with “listening only” more accurately identified the emotions experienced.

“What we find here is that perhaps people are paying too much attention to the face–the voice might have much of the content necessary to perceive others’ internal states accurately,” said Kraus.

“The findings suggest that we should be focusing more on studying vocalizations of emotion.”

But how can you become a more empathetic listener?

Here are five important rules to follow:

1. Don’t interrupt.

The minute you speak is the minute you stop listening, and learning.

But not only that; When you interrupt, you often cause your conversation partner to feel that you aren’t really interested in them.

So, learn as much as possible–by letting the other person share without interruption.

2. Focus.

This one sounds simple, but today most people won’t even put away their phone when they’re speaking to someone. By giving others your full attention when they’re speaking, you stand out as different.

So, put the devices away. Listen intently. Try to notice significant pauses or inflections of voice: Is your partner telling the whole story? Or are they leaving out significant details? What’s the story behind the story?

Finally, when listening, resist the urge to think of how you’re going to respond, and just listen.

3. Ask discerning questions.

As you try to understand your partner’s viewpoint, ask questions to help you understand where they’re coming from, and why they feel the way they do.

If they’re frustrated, don’t jump to conclusions, instead, dig deeper. Remember, focus on learning, not judging.

Of course, you don’t want your partner to feel interrogated. Once they feel like you truly care about what they have to say, they’ll be more open to hear your point of view (even if its dissenting).

4. Relate to feelings, not to situations.

It can be challenging to relate to what someone else is going through, because we all get overwhelmed or frustrated by different things.

For example, if someone tells you about a presentation they’re struggling with, you may dismiss it–because presentations come easy to you. The problem, though, is even if you don’t express that thought directly, it’ll come out in the way you speak with your partner, which will affect your relationship.

Instead, when someone talks about a personal struggle, think of a time when you felt similarly. Maybe it was a serious problem, or a series of events that overwhelmed you.

When your default changes from judgmental to helpful, you build a bridge instead of a rift–which makes an emotional impact on your teammate and strengthens your relationship.

5. Don’t provide a solution.

When you try to offer a solution, you immediately send the message:

“This problem is easy to solve; just do this.”

You can imagine how that makes your partner feel. Additionally, you likely don’t have all the facts. And in most cases, the other person will see this as a lack of personal interest, or even worse, as condescending.

Instead, thank the person for their trust, and for being willing to share. If you do have something to share, and you sense you’ve earned the other person’s trust, you might say something like this:

“Can I share something that has helped me in the past, with a similar situation? It may or may not help you, but I hope it does.”

By simply asking for permission, you give control to the other person, making them more open to listen to you.

So, the next time someone comes to you to share what’s on their mind, follow the five rules of empathetic listening:

1. Don’t interrupt.
2. Focus.
3. Ask discerning questions.
4. Relate to feelings, not situations.
5. Don’t provide a solution.

If you do, you’ll strengthen your empathy muscle, earn trust from others, and build stronger, deeper relationships.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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