As long as four decades ago American psychologist Paul Ekman boosted the study of human emotions and came up with what we know today as six basic and universally recognized emotions. According to Ekman’s and much of the following research, people universally show and are able to recognize the facial expressions of such emotions as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Universality of at least these six basic emotions seems to be of great importance, as it implies that we are able to understand each other’s feelings and conditions even in cross-cultural settings. It means that we can be empathic with each other irrelevant of cultural differences, and what could be more important for effective cross-cultural communication?!
Indeed, a recent blog post in Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that empathy, namely understanding and relating to the feelings of others, is an integral part of effective listening. Empathic listening is in turn an integral part of good and effective leadership, naturally also on a global scale.
So, if we can universally recognize certain emotions, and hence assume underlying feelings, does it mean that emphatic listening is something we all do?
Certainly things are not that easy. As I argue in one of my previous posts, good global leadership does not just stem from innate talent, but definitely needs deliberate skill acquisition and development. I would hold on to this viewpoint also in terms of empathic listening.
Way too often our abilities to be emphatic towards others are hindered by being in a hurry to end the conversation, getting distracted during the conversation, being too uncompromising or directive in our own opinions, and thinking about one’s next arguments rather than listening to the arguments of others. On a global scale communication can also be hindered by language difficulties. As such there are many possible ways and reasons for missing or ignoring the feelings, emotional conditions and perspectives of others. Sometimes we just tend to hear others, but forgetting to listen to them too. However, there are several possible ways to improve and manage the skill of emphatic listening.
Turning hearing into listening
Referring to some academic findings, the HBR blog author suggests three main possibilities for improvement.
Firstly, leaders should pay attention not only to ‘what’ is being said – the verbal cues, but also to ‘how’ it is being said – the nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues include the tone of voice, body language and facial expressions of the person. As such, leaders are encouraged to listen with all their senses. In cross-cultural communication this notion is especially important, as processing non-verbal language can possibly make up for the shortfalls of foreign language misunderstandings. Naturally, misinterpreting nonverbal cues based on cultural differences is also a risk, but more so in the case of very distant cultures. In any case, never switch off your radar in a cross-cultural setting!
Secondly, leaders should focus more on processing incoming information, rather than just recording it. In other words, understanding and remembering the arguments of others, summarizing the key points, reformulating what has been said, and bringing up clear agreements and disagreements would indicate that such processing actually occurs.
Thirdly, empathic listening is linked to the way we respond. Echoing with notions about listening, when responding leaders are also encouraged to use nonverbal language, as well as acknowledge and identify that the conversation companion was heard and understood. For example, mirroring the perceived feelings (e.g. ‘It sounds like you feel unhappy about the decision’) can serve well in demonstrating empathy, explicitly checking for the correctness of one’s perception, and encouraging a trustful and open conversation.
Generally, I would argue that it is important for global leaders to develop their empathic skills to be the kind of leaders that listen and not just hear.