Leadership and Empathy
Empathy is fundamental to ACSYL's work, so we were delighted to come across an article by Dr Christine M Riordan entitled "Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy".1
When the article was published Dr Riordan was the Provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky. Since then, in 2015, she became the first woman to serve as President of Adelphi University. She is particularly interested in leadership, team building, diversity and inclusion.
Refreshingly, she notes early in the article that few leaders are good at listening: they "seek to take command, direct conversations," are often competitive and can "let their egos get in the way of listening to what others have to say."
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you even recognise yourself in this description. If so, worry not: we can all build our listening skills, and help is at hand.
Dr Riordan lists three behaviour sets that research has linked with empathetic listening:
Taking in the full message
This means not just words but also non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and silence. "Sensitive leaders pay attention to what others are not saying and probe a bit deeper," she says. "They also understand how others are feeling and acknowledge those feelings." Leaders can be quite explicit about wanting to understand where everyone is coming from on a particular topic. From here it's a simple step to invite people to express themselves in more detail. For instance: "You seem excited (happy, upset …) about this situation, and I would like to hear more about your perspective."
This "involves understanding the meaning of the messages and keeping track of the points of the conversation. Leaders who are effective at processing […] summarise points of agreement and disagreement, and capture global themes". What's more, they are adept at noting what further information needs to be gathered, and identifying the next steps to take. All of this gives people confidence that they have been heard and understood.
Effective leaders use a range of responses to show that they have listened and to encourage further communication. These responses can include nods, gestures, acknowledgements, clarifying questions, brief paraphrases etc. Once the conversation has ended, leaders can follow through by making changes, keeping promises, incorporating feedback and/or explaining why they have made a different decision. "In short, the leader can find many ways to demonstrate that he or she has heard the messages."
Because empathetic listening is multidimensional, Dr Riordan believes it's important for leaders to be comfortable with emotions – including tensions. This level of comfort empowers them to create a safe space where sensitive information can be shared and problem-solving can really be a team effort. "The ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets a leader apart," Dr Riordan says. "Hearing is not adequate; the leader truly needs to work at understanding the position and perspective of the others involved in the conversation. […] Slowing down, engaging with others rather than endlessly debating, taking the time time to hear and learn from others, and asking brilliant questions are ultimately the keys to success."
As anyone in ACSYL's team will tell you, learning to listen with empathy is a challenging, highly rewarding process. We see it as a lifelong journey of discovery. The more we can learn from our clients and their families, the better we can serve them and enhance their quality of life.
Christine M Riordan, "Three Ways Leaders Can Listen with More Empathy," Harvard Business Review, January 16, 2014. ↩︎