July 17, 2013 | Elise Schafer
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Leadership Communication Skills: Listening and Being An Empathetic Leader

How to sharpen the most critical keys to successful leadership.

Colin Powell said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” In his book, It Worked for me in Life and Leadership, Powell shares with us rules that he developed, concepts that he found effective, and stories of his life that impacted him and his leadership style.

Good leaders have several important characteristics, and while all deserve a discussion, we simply do not have the column space to discuss all of them with you at one time. In this month’s article, we want to focus on two that may often be overlooked or under-considered: listening and empathy. As a manager in a feed and grain business, you work with many different people including those that report to you, those that you report to, and those that neither report to you nor to which you report, but with whom you work and interact. Improving your listening and empathy skills will raise your status as an effective leader to all of these groups. Today, empathy and listening have been identified as two of the most critical leadership skills for successful leaders. Without well-practiced skills of these two characteristics, leaders are not likely to go as far as others who possess them.

Listening is a Skill

Communications skills include speaking, writing, reading, and listening. In academics, we quite often talk about developing good communications skills in our students, yet, we too, often neglect the listening skills. However, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that listening is the skill that separates the great leaders from the near-great leaders. So, what suggests that you are or are not a good listener? Based on the work of several researchers and other authors, below is both a description of a good listener and a not-so-good listener.

A good listener will exhibit the following actions and characteristics:

  • Good eye contact; eyes are fixed on the speaker; maintain eye contact
  • Does not interrupt but waits for the speaker to finish
  • Pays attention to the speaker’s non-verbal behavior, as well as verbal behavior
  • Exhibits empathy by working to understand the speaker; demonstrates a caring attitude
  • Summarizes what the speaker has said
  • Is open-minded and does not criticize
  • Provides constructive verbal and non-verbal feedback
  • Asks questions in response to a question

A not-so-good listener will exhibit these actions and characteristics instead:

  • Poor or little eye contact; eyes may wander and are not focused on the speaker
  • Interrupts the speaker; may change the subject
  • Is easily distracted, looks around, fidgets, is pre-occupied, takes phone calls, shuffles papers, does not pay attention to the speaker
  • Talks more than listens
  • May give little or no feedback
  • Is close-minded and judgmental
  • May give unwanted advice or starts giving advice before the speaker is finished
  • Downplays other’s emotions

Surely we have all been poor listeners at some point in time. Think about a time when you were trying to finish an important report and one of your staff popped in your office to talk to you about something. Did you put your report away and give all of your attention to your employee? Or, did you halfway listen while keeping your mind focused on your report? Everyone has  times when they probably do not listen as well as they could and this is understandable. But, how you listen and behave much of the time will be the “label” given to you. Others may say that you are not really interested in what they have to say, or they may say that you have already made up your mind so it is not worth the effort to talk with you. If it is a bad time for you to focus on the person wanting to talk to you, then it is better to ask them to come back at a different time, maybe set an appointment. Then, at the time of the scheduled meeting it is important that you give this person all of your attention. This will put you in a much better light with your employee than seeing them now but not really paying attention to them. Poor listening skills can lead to poor relationships and poor performance, not something you want in your feed and grain business. Let your troops know that they can bring you their problems. And, when they do . . .actively listen to them.

Try Empathy – It Works

Being a good listener is necessary for being an empathetic leader: the second important leadership characteristic that we want to discuss this month. Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, but they are truly different. It is not surprising that empathy is important to leadership when you think of its origin. Empathy comes from the Greek term empatheia which means passion. How many times have you heard or said that you should have passion for your work and you should do something for which you are passionate? Empathy is recognizing and understanding the feelings, motives, and situations of others and being sensitive to these.  Empathy is critical to great leadership because it helps you develop trust. When you use your empathic leader skills, it helps you understand why people react to situations, and you are more aware of others’ feelings and how their feelings impact their perceptions.

Are you now starting to get why empathy is important to being a leader in your business? In so much of what you do as managers, understanding the “why” is so important. We can much more appropriately respond to a situation if we truly understand the “why” and empathy helps us do this. Being empathic does not necessarily mean that we have to agree with the other person and/or their perception of a situation. It merely means that we recognize and appreciate the feelings of others and their view and perspective; we understand the needs of others and let them know that we do. Doing so can help you as a leader in several other ways. When you use empathy in your management, you help others feel safe with failures and errors because they feel that they will not simply be blamed; they feel that you will understand. When you understand your employees better, you are better able to help those who are struggling to improve their performance and you are better able to help those that excel stretch themselves to continue their own professional growth.

Empathy, while recognized as important is not always exhibited and encouraged in the workplace. Why? For one, expression of emotion in the workplace can still be regarded as a weakness. It is definitely a fine line to walk. Humans are complicated creatures and correctly understanding others and their perceptions can take time and be difficult. Expressing empathy also involves considering others before yourself, which in today’s extremely competitive business environment can certainly be challenging to do and one may wonder if putting others before self will really be a wise move. However, a survey of 2,405 managers and 2,595 non-managers conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that respondent employees indicated greater levels of trust in CEOs for whom they believed exhibited greater levels of empathy. So, exhibiting empathy helps managers develop trust between them and their employees, and trust can also be a critical element to performance and business success. 

Some Presidential Examples

Empathy can be potentially challenging to understand and utilize, especially if it does not come as naturally to you as perhaps some other skills. It is interesting to see examples of empathy and ratings of empathy in well-recognized leadership personalities, for example some of the Presidents of the United States. Author Colleen Shogan of the Congressional Research Service provides us some excellent examples and comparisons and contrasts of models of empathy used by Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Lincoln is considered to have possessed a high capacity for empathy and arguably his greatest use and impact of it came in his opinion and actions toward slavery. Lincoln also tried to understand the slave owners and understand their point of view. Lincoln also used empathy to stroke egos and gain political allies by using empathy to turn opponents into supporters, and he used empathy to identity persuasive emotional arguments. Lincoln is generally considered to have exhibited and used wise and appropriate levels of empathy. 

Bill Clinton is often described as having great ability for making people believe that he understood how they felt.  His expression of empathy in addressing questions during the 1992 presidential debate scored him significant points over George H.W. Bush because he made people believe that he understood them, their problems and their hardships; Bush did not. Clinton’s use of empathy helped him have foreign policy success in Northern Ireland, and helped him successfully address families and citizens after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. However, Clinton is generally not heralded as highly as Lincoln in his use of empathy because Clinton’s tears and other emotional gestures often made people uncomfortable and they have often been questioned as real or fake given his dishonesty in other aspects of his life. 

George W. Bush’s presidential leadership is generally labeled strong and decisive more so than empathetic. Bush is often said to have missed or passed on opportunities to show a softer side of himself. To many this change in leadership style from Clinton was drastic. During his presidency, Bush dealt with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the flooding of the Midwest in 2008. Bush’s statements after Sept. 11 are considered to have exhibited toughness and strong presidential leadership rather than empathy; his actions and statements in response to Katrina caused his empathy approval rating to drop; however, his actions in response to the 2008 flooding and his statements in Cedar Rapids, IA show significant displays of empathy, suggesting that he recognized the importance of empathy and the criticisms received during Katrina. 

Apply Them Yourself

It is not necessary for you to be an aspiring president of the United States usiness to make use of your listening and empathy skills! You do have to be conscious of and tuned into the situation though. We said before that being a good listener is necessary for being an empathetic leader.  If you truly want to earn points with your employees and others, then pay attention to them, get to know them, take an interest in them. Listen to them when they talk to you.

Empathy in some regards can be viewed as kindness. In chapter five of his book, Powell talks about empathy and kindness. He provides a quote from a sermon he heard: “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.” Powell gives a wonderful example of the difference that kindness and empathy can make based on what he learned from talking to the employees in his office parking garage. This particular garage had to pack cars istacking them one behind another making a clear order to the exiting of cars at the end of the day: cars parked farther in could not leave until the lead cars did. Powell asked the attendants how they decided when the cars arrived in the morning who ended up getting parked so they were first, second and so on to get out. The attendants smiled and explained that if the driver spoke to them with something like “good morning” or “how are you” and smiled or something similar, then they were at the front to get out, but if a person dids not look at them or acknowledge their existence, then they were likely to be last or near last to get out. This is a great example of how just a little bit of kindness means more to the person receiving it than you might realize, and is also a great example of how a very costless act of kindness can make a big difference for not only the recipient but also to you as the provider, and to your business. Powell says, “Kindness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of confidence. If you have developed a reputation for kindness and consideration, then even the most unpleasant decisions will go down easier because everyone will understand why you are doing what you are doing. They will realize that your decision must be necessary, and is not arbitrary or without empathy.” There is that key word again — empathy.        

There may be no more fun of a place to see genuine exhibitions of empathy than in the dugout of a 7- or 8-year-old boy's baseball team. As parents and coaches, we are leaders of our children and we generally hope that they are paying attention to what we say and to at least some of what we do. Watch what happens when your highest percentage hitter, the only kid who has not struck out all season, strikes out for the first time in the season during the second to last game of the season, and then he strikes out two more times in the same game. Every time, every kid in the dugout is there to greet him, pat him on the back, and show him that they know how he feels. If it were only that easy for us as leaders and managers to be genuine and to show others that we have an interest in them, in their state of mind and in their performance as it is for young boys on a baseball team, then maybe we would all perform better, be happier, and be “better” colleagues, co-workers, and bosses. And, maybe we too could come out at the final game of the season — the championship game — our next important meeting or interaction —and as an individual hit two homeruns, as a team hit four homeruns and have zero team members strike out, and get that big win!  Just maybe….Listen, Empathize, Act. Try it. What do you have to lose?  It could be the key to your improving your success as a leader! 

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