What is Empathic Listening?
Empathic listening, sometimes called reflexive listening or active listening, is a way of listening and responding to someone in a way that promotes greater understanding and trust. The ability to listen with empathy is what sets apart great communicators from average, or even good, ones. The idea of empathic listening is to put yourself into the speaker's place and attempt to understand not only what they are saying, but also why they are saying it. In order to do this, the listener must listen with an open mind, and be actively engaged in the conversation, while being sure not to provide any judgement or injecting their own thoughts into the conversation.
Most conversations are a two-way interaction. One person speaks while the other listens, and then the other person processes what he heard, and then responds. In effect, the participants take turns sharing information, feelings or ideas. In empathic listening, only one side is providing ideas and thoughts, while the other only listens. But just because one party is only listening, that doesn't mean that they are any less engaged in the process. In order to actively listen, you must show to the speaker that you are paying attention and that you understand. The way to do this is by repeating what you hear, without attempting to inject anything of yourself into the statements.
Without interrupting, and only after normal amounts of time, you should attempt to restate back to the speaker what you heard. You need to do this without changing the subject, moving the topic in a new direction, and without giving advice or attempting to help "solve" their problem or worse, dismissing their problem as small or insignificant. Restating what you are hearing, exactly as you are hearing it, back to the speaker shows that you are attentive, that you care, and that you are understanding what the speaker is trying to say.
How does Empathic Listening Improve Stakeholder Communications
Your project will have several stakeholders of all levels. However, unless your project has an unlimited schedule and unlimited budget, you cannot hope to meet all of their desires and requirements. But, meeting the needs of all your stakeholders is often not necessary, what is necessary is listening to them, and making your stakeholders believe that their concerns were heard and understood. Your stakeholders will forgive and acknowledge that not all of their needs are going to be met, what they will not be forgiving of is a project manager who doesn't seem to even understand what those needs are in the first place.
In communicating with your stakeholders, be they executives or receptionists, you need to show empathy in your listening, and you must prove to them that you heard and understood what their requirements are. This is true if you do plan on attempting to deliver on those requirements, and it's almost certainly more true if you do not plan on delivering on them. This interaction may be all that the speaker is going to get from you, and it is up to you to make it a positive experience for them.
The cost of doing this is incredibly low. You can spend an hour understanding — really understanding — what people want, and making the effort to make them comfortable that you understand it. The value of doing so is hard to underestimate. Some of the stakeholders just want to air their grievances, want to tell you something only slightly related to the project, or really just want to be listened to. For many of your stakeholders, this will be the one and only time you need to do this. Once you go through this excercise, and convince the stakeholder that you understand them, then no further diligence is necessary on your part, you already have done what you needed to do.
How to convince your stakeholders to participate
You would think it would be easy to get stakeholders to open up to your empathic listening, and tell you everything that is on their mind. However, in reality, this is rarely the case. Many of the people you will talk with have done this before, they have been ignored, dismissed, or have had their words used against them. Getting them to open up may be a challenge and may even be resisted by the people you are hoping to engage in the first place.
The way to get your stakeholders to participate in empathic listening is to simply do it. Start slow and small, but be consistent and be determined. Continue to reflect their own thoughts back to them and show that you are listening and that you can be trusted. Over the course of the conversation, they should continue to open up, to give you more information or to tell you even more about whatever topic they are talking about. Once they get into it, and they see that you are engaging them in a way that they want, you should have little difficulty getting them to continue.
Stakeholder Communication with Empathic Listening
Stakeholder communication is one of the keys to running a good project. Using empathic listening will allow you to not only get more information about your project, but also build a level of trust with your project community, and give you the ability to have positive interactions with key members of the project, even if the project wont be servicing all of their desires.