What Is Empathic Listening? Fostering Compassion at Work 

Posted on December 25, 2023 | Updated on December 25, 2023

“Leadership” and “empathic listening” may not seem like they go hand in hand. However, as the workforce undergoes several transitions, empathy has become one of the most important and necessary traits leaders can have. 

But why should one listen empathically? Likewise, how does it become a learned trait for those who don’t innately possess it? Fostering compassion at work can actually drive business success. 

Let’s explore the definition of empathic listening and how to adopt it at work. We’ll also look at three companies implementing empathy into their work culture.

What Is Empathic Listening?

Empathic listening is an act of attentiveness and responsiveness while someone is speaking. It is emotionally connecting with another person — stepping into their shoes and finding like-mindedness in their words. 

Someone who listens empathically has an easier time responding without judgment or tension. Instead, they approach with heartfelt understanding and consideration. When companies tie empathy into their business landscapes, they benefit from the following:


  • Improved interactions among employees
  • Deeper working relationships
  • Amplified respect among colleagues and supervisor-employee relationships
  • Makes workers feel valued
  • Builds rapport and trustworthiness
  • Fosters creativity and idea-sharing
  • Improves client relationships
  • Enhances customer services by better anticipating the customers’ desires and needs
  • Boosts hiring and retention
  • Ensures companies offer the most relevant benefits

Contrary to popular belief, empathy is a far cry from weak leadership. If anything, it strengthens teams overall and allows companies to thrive.

Applying Empathic Listening in the Workplace

Indeed, leadership would do well to adopt empathic listening skills — however, people can apply empathy to numerous business situations. Here are some practical ways to use empathic listening and communication at work.

Leadership

Business leaders who are empathic listeners cultivate happier, more productive workers. For one thing, employees will feel more comfortable brainstorming ideas with their teams. Empathic leaders who meet their employees with compassion also instill a sense of security. 

The focus must be on other people, with employers taking a keen interest in whoever is around — this includes what they find upsetting, their feelings and motivations. Leaders who lead with empathy should look to connect with others and make a difference. 

According to HP’s 2020 Work Relationship Index, 64% of employees want a work culture that embraces emotions. Eighty-three percent would look for another job with less pay if it meant they’d be happier. 

Marketing

Marketers can lean into empathy to better understand their customers’ needs and challenges and create compelling messaging that resonates. 

Many companies have tried empathetic marketing, including JetBlue, Home Depot and LUSH. However, the sustainable clothing brand Girlfriend Collective stands out with its email marketing initiatives. 

The brand uses targeted, personalized email marketing to notify customers of new products and campaigns. In an extreme display of empathy, Girlfriend Collective sent an email before Mother’s Day, allowing customers to mute Mother’s Day promotions. 

Why does this work? Because Mother’s Day and Father’s Day could be especially difficult for people who have lost their parents. A barrage of Mother’s Day emails could be triggering for some.

Sales

Believe it or not, salespeople who develop an empathetic sales approach often close the deal. Applying empathic listening helps companies build rapport with customers and identify critical issues.

Empathy cultivates trust but also gives salespeople a leg up in asking the right questions. When one fully understands the customer, they can respond to their signals, dig deeper into client problems and develop solutions more effectively.

An empathetic salesperson can correctly determine when a customer is ready to sign the dotted line. This skill helps them avoid pressuring the client and move steadily at their pace. Imagine how this strategy can boost a company’s reputation.

Tips to Become an Empathic Listener

Do you want to become an empathic listener? You can still develop the trait even if you weren’t born an empath. The following tips will foster empathic listening skills to become a more compassionate, supportive leader:

  • Be present — pay attention to whoever is speaking and avoid all unnecessary distractions.
  • Clarify your confusion by asking the right questions — this also demonstrates you’re listening to the speaker.
  • Remain open-minded to other people’s perspectives and opinions, even if they differ from yours.
  • Repeat key points to demonstrate your understanding of what’s being said and to make the speaker feel heard.
  • Validate the speaker’s emotions.

Emotional validation is critical to empathic listening. You might respond with phrases such as, “I can understand why you feel the way you do,” “That is such a frustrating situation,” and “I truly appreciate your honesty.”

Of course, listening in silence is the most critical practice to become an empathic listener. Avoid interjecting with your ideas, feelings and advice when the person has the floor. Interruptions can take away from the personal experience they’re trying to convey.

Empathic Leadership: 4 Case Studies

Many CEOs are renowned empaths — such as Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and General Motors CEO Mary Barra. They take empathic listening to another level by incorporating compassionate business models into the workplace. The following four case studies examine how big-name companies lean into empathy to enhance work culture.

Slack

Remote work communication platform Slack has undergone significant changes since being acquired by Salesforce at the end of 2022. At the same time, the company’s beloved empathetic leader, Stewart Butterfield, stepped down. 

Before the acquisition, Butterfield had put empathy at Slack’s core with the Product-Market-Fit sales model while encouraging cohesive teamwork behind the scenes. Naturally, he appointed Salesforce executive Lidiane Jones as his successor — another leader who values thoughtful connections and experiences for workers and customers.

In his parting words to employees —in Slack, of course — Butterfield said Jones is the “diamond-shaped heart in the four-circle Venn diagram” of wisdom, humility, a strong work ethic and collaboration.

Proctor and Gamble

Proctor and Gamble is another example of an empathetic workplace. For one thing, the company recognizes its employees with at-home caregiver responsibilities. It offers employees various child care support from agency access, affordable rates and resources to find qualified child care services.

The company also has paid time off and a sabbatical program. As part of the sabbatical program, employees can take up to three months of unpaid leave every five years to focus on their mental health, explore the world or participate in any personal activity they want.

Many companies offer generous paid leave, yet few employees take time to recharge their batteries. Empathetic leaders care about their employees’ work-life balance and encourage them to take advantage of these benefits.

Microsoft

As one of the best-known software companies, it is only fitting Microsoft hosts the annual Hackathon — an internal program encouraging employees to pursue individual innovations.

The event serves to reenergize Microsoft’s workforce, where employees can seek guidance and support from managers for projects unrelated to their daily work. As a result, Microsoft workers feel more empowered to achieve their goals and the company’s mission.

In 2022, Hackathon attracted 18,000 employees across 400 cities and over 70 countries to bring their ideas to life. Hackathon is currently in its fifth year and more popular than ever. 

Intuit

Intuit — the parent company of MailChimp, TurboTax, Mint, Credit Karma and QuickBooks — has gotten its empathy down pat. Like Proctor and Gamble, Intuit offers generous PTO and leave of absence for employees.

Highlights from Intuit’s PTO opportunities include paid vacation, a day off for your birthday, company-wide recharge days, sick time, volunteer days, family support time off, bereavement time, parental leave and time off to vote.

Its leave of absence program provides employees with additional flexibility, such as short and long-term disability, medical leave, maternity leave, military duty, and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.

These types of leave and PTO benefits are particularly beneficial to the 53% of employees ages 40–49 and 36% of employees over 40 who care for an adult spouse or parent.

Empathic Listening Creates a Great Workplace

Leaders gain crucial insight into their employees’ needs when they listen empathically. By being present, focusing their attention on their workforce and validating emotions, they build team trust and loyalty. Ultimately, empathy cultivates a happier place to work. 


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