Communication is a critical aspect of a healthy workplace — especially with so many people working remotely in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. If you oversee or are part of a remote work team, it's important that you make an effort to genuinely implement empathetic listening while virtually at work.

Learning to actively listening

To many people — one might even say most people — the act of "listening" consists of busily developing a reply while someone else is talking and then waiting for the first opportunity to insert their own thoughts and opinions into the conversation. This selfish form of communication requires a lack of attention given to the current speaker.

For a while now one of the key ways to combat this self-occupied communication has been taught in the form of active listening. Active listening is defined as the ability to focus completely on the speaker in order to understand what they are saying, comprehend their message, and provide a thoughtful, deliberate response. While useful, active listening is mostly focused on the practical, applicable act of hearing and responding to others.

In other words, when conversing with a boss or colleague — whether in person, on the phone, over video chat, or even in an email — instead of becoming preoccupied with your own response, active listening requires proactively striving to hear and accommodate the speaker. It's an art that revolves around respect for one another. When mutually adopted, it can go a long way in facilitating healthy interpersonal communication, even in a remote workspace.

Raising the bar with empathetic listening

While active listening is a good first step, many have found that it's necessary to take things even further in order to truly cultivate positive, healthy interactions at work. The "next step" in question? Empathetic listening.

Empathy, as a concept, goes further than simply hearing and acknowledging the thoughts of another. It ensures that we recognize the emotions in others, and are able to see things from their perspective — at least to the best of our ability.

If you want to truly succeed with interpersonal communication in the workplace, it's essential that you not only actively listen to a coworker but empathetically do so, as well. Empathetic listening requires reflecting back the emotions we hear in another person's conversation. It requires seeing things from their perspective and striving to communicate that you understand what they're trying to say.

The concept of empathetic listening is often used with kids. Johnny, how does it make you feel that your toy broke? Sally, you seem upset that your friend rejected you. That kind of thing.

But what about the workspace? How can empathetic listening apply to (mostly) mature adults interacting with one another in a professional setting? When broken down, it quickly becomes apparent that there are actually many different ways that empathy can be used as a tremendously powerful tool in workspace communication.

For example, consider a member of the Baby Boomer generation with a long history of working precisely from 9 am to 5 pm trying to plan a meeting with a Millennial. The former may quickly find that their younger coworker's prioritization of a flexible work schedule — 44% of Millennials want greater flexibility in their professional lives — is baffling and overcomplicating the need for the two coworkers to meet.

If this confusion goes unaddressed, it can lead to friction and even hostility as the two employees disagree with one another about how to meet during their differently scheduled workdays. However, if the older coworker is able to disengage from the need to facilitate their own long-established scheduling desires, it can free them up to understand the situation from their coworker's perspective.

In the same vein, the Millennial coworker should strive to acknowledge and empathize with their senior colleague's conventional desire for predictable work hours. This two-way empathy can quickly disarm and bring the pair together in a uniquely powerful way that opens up the door to genuine problem-solving.

How you can start to empathize at work

If you'd like to start communicating with greater empathy at work, here are a few suggestions for ways that you can integrate a more empathetic listening mindset into your daily interactions:

  • When you're interacting, try to repeat what you heard, first, to confirm that you understood. This may seem monotonous and even pandering, but when done genuinely, it actually shows respect and understanding towards the person you're talking to.
  • Proactively put yourself in other people's shoes. Over time you may begin to naturally consider each situation from another's perspective. If you're struggling to do so at first, though, make a point to purposefully consider each situation from other perspectives.
  • Give the speaker all of your attention. If you find that you tend to drift into your own thoughts while someone is speaking, make a point to deliberately focus on the speaker with every ounce of your attention.
  • Welcome constructive feedback. Accepting feedback and attempting to resolve conflicts are both key elements of successful teamwork and healthy interactions in the workplace.
  • Look for ways to take action on behalf of the speaker. Rather than focusing on your own point, consider how you can take actionable steps to help the speaker. This will vary dramatically from one situation from the next but is always worth consideration.

If you can proactively strive to develop empathetic listening as a workplace skill, you'll be able to find greater success in all of your professional interactions.

Benefitting from healthy internal communication at work

Internal communication isn't just helpful, it's often one of the deciding factors between a healthy or a toxic workplace. Quality internal communication, in particular, helps to enhance relationships, inspire creativity and innovation, diffuse arguments, and maintain employee morale. In other words, it ensures that your team will cultivate a collective harmony that keeps your workspace healthy and prosperous.

So, take stock of your current interpersonal interactions within the workplace. Are you utilizing the principles of active listening? Are you taking things even further by striving to empathize and understand the speaker? What steps can you take to improve your ability to demonstrate empathetic listening?

If you make an effort in the here and now, you'll be able to benefit from the positive repercussions of healthy communication throughout the remainder of your professional career. 

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