Build Trust Using the Spectrum of Empathic Listening

Listening Better

Spectrums are often used to demonstrate a continuum of change. Here, I will demonstrate how you can create more trust by developing the listening skills of world class networkers and beloved influencers. This effective process has been used by elite coaches to assist clients in the gradual growth of powerful and efficient listening skills.

This is the third piece in my series on using the metaphor of the “spectrum” to outline the incremental stepsone can take that will lead to lasting change (see The Spectrum of Mindfulness Practices and The Spectrum of Assertive Speaking). As I tell my clients, a “state” change is easy – there are thousands of coaches who will gladly take your money to help you feel better for a little while. But a “structure” change, the type of change that lasts, requires that you follow a methodology of transformational learning.

The fact that so many willpower (“just do it”) approaches to change persist in this world, enlisting an either/or mentality, baffles and annoys me. As a developmental psychologist who started in neuroscience, and as a former martial artist, I can tell you that real change requires persistent, gradual growth. For those of us who are used to giving direction, learning to listen well often represents the next level of gradual growth.

We are at the dawning age of multi-screen distractions, and because of this the empathic listeners will have a clear advantage. People who are good at speaking may not be as good at listening. World class coach Jim Loehr uses a helpful metaphor for this from tennis – a game where players at all levels usually have a stronger forehand than backhand. If you want a world-class game, you need a world-class backhand, because your competitors are working on theirs. If “listening better” is your backhand, then read on.

The people for whom I am writing this piece likely have a worldview where everyone should “own” their work, where principles matter above process, and where maintaining a healthy/profitable system is the ultimate self-expression.

For those who succeed in the above, empathic listening can feel like something that gums up the works. But this lacks vision; there are larger feedback loops at play, and attending to better listening skills can help you leverage those larger feedback loops to your advantage.

Why Should I Listen Better?

It may be your experience that feelings and relationships can be “smothering.” This is totally understandable, given that the ability to regulate feelings is a high-water mark of maturity:

“When you begin to recognize that your thoughts and feelings do not just ‘show up’ on their own, that they are not created by others (e.g., ‘you make me so mad!’), you see that you yourself are the creator of your feelings, and you begin to make yourself more responsible for your internal system.” (Robert Kegan, Evolve, May 2020)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. People who you see as a “time suck” might represent an even less mature way of being in the world, where they expect you to complete their half-written thoughts. This can feel like smothering, as if you are “big daddy” to them.

The most popular “state” change method – because it is easy – is assessing the personality “types” of you and your colleagues. Knowing someone’s type (Myers-Briggs, OCEAN, Enneagram) can help you shape your message, but it cannot help you listen better. When you need to get to the next level of your game, you must create a few unique bridges to connect with different types of people in order to influence them.

These skills can help you become a better mentor and a better partner with better relationships. That is something all the experts agree upon for wild success.

A Low Empathy Example

Before going through the steps of the Spectrum of Empathic Listening, let’s take a look at an example of a less-developed way of listening. Bill is having a tough time at work because he doesn’t delegate enough, and when he tries, he stumbles. In his most recent exchange, he intended to delegate some routine procedures to a direct report, but ended up doing the work himself, missing dinner with his family, and losing an opportunity to be a better leader. He goes to his boss the next day and tries to get some advice:

Bill:      Jack, thanks for taking the time.

Jack:    Of course, what’s going on?

Bill:      Well…sometimes I feel like my team doesn’t hear me. Yesterday I tried – once again – to offload some simple tasks so that I could focus on creating my presentation, but it didn’t go well. I told Emily about my presentation, and how pressed for time I was, and mentioned that we needed to complete the spreadsheets for you before Friday, and when I asked her what she had on her plate, she pushed back by letting me know she was pretty busy with next week’s investor meeting. I just don’t know what to do, maybe I need a new assistant.

Jack:    [Thinking, “OH BOY, HERE WE GO AGAIN….]  Have you tried being more direct with Emily? I find that people appreciate when I’m direct with them.

Bill:      Well, I thought I was being direct enough!

Jack:    Yeah, well, sometimes busy colleagues freeze-up, and it’s good to find ways to get through that tendency. Try being direct with her.

Bill:      [A little confused, a little let-down, “once again,” by Jack]  O.K., thanks Jack.

I imagine conversations like this are happening daily all over the world. Neuroscientist David Rock has helpful terms for situations like this. He says that people will go into an “away” state when they feel threatened by what leaders say, and a “toward” state when they feel aligned with the same value the leader communicates. Jack genuinely wants to help Bill, because he appreciates Bill and because he wants the work to get done in a timely fashion. But Bill is likely in an “away” state, dealing with his confused feelings, and also with Jack’s “fix it” approach to his problem. Our earnest attempts to help a colleague fix their problem is actually quite low on the Spectrum of Empathic Listening.

Whether it’s because Jack doesn’t want to have “yet another conversation about delegating” with Bill, or that Jack doesn’t want to play “big daddy” to Bill’s “confused student,” or maybe Jack never saw the value in a deeper approach, Bill is left with do-it-yourself instructions. It seems likely that both Bill and Jack are unsatisfied with their chat.

Leaders can be forgiven for wanting their employees to “own their work” in a DIY fashion, but if they really want to grow their employees’ capacities to work more efficiently, they must learn to listen better.

I have helped many leaders make minor adjustments to their communication styles with excellent results. I say “minor,” but they often have deep developmental roots. The imagined worst-case-scenarios of time inefficiencies never happen. But they illustrate the fact that leaders often have a developmental limitation in their growth trajectory – that the system they’re running will become weak or inefficient if they extend themselves like this. The opposite is almost always the case.

How do leaders like Jack get to this place? Below are the steps involved. These are the same steps that I used to illustrate the Spectrum of Assertive Speaking, but of course, the content is different. The Spectrum of Mindfulness Practices is a method that can be applied to many different types of change you might need.

Step One – Noticing

Most of us have thought, after failing to get our point across in conversation, “Well….THAT could have gone better!” It’s natural to automatically dismiss the other party as inflexible, obtuse, or weak because they just won’t listen. It is seductive to explain-away their inability to follow you in terms of different values, different life experiences, or just plain laziness.

Being irritated is the first step in the evolution of trust! Trust is built over time but destroyed instantly. If you are satisfied by dismissing the natural constructions of you by others, then you can stop here.

There is a process to growing your trusted influence with others. Empathic listening is first and foremost knowing what your natural responses are or would be. There are two general types of people for whom the Spectrum of Empathic Listening is useful in developing their backhand – those who have no idea how to respond, and those who know how to respond, but for whom building a stronger connection has some kind of bad consequence.

In both of these cases, you are likely expressing one of two types of responses – the “don’t feel the way you do” response or the “we can fix this” type of response. Even well-meaning people can inadvertently deliver the “don’t feel the way you do” response.

Think about a time when you have told someone, “hey, don’t feel bad…everyone goes through this at one point or another.” What we are looking for is to put people into a “towards” stance, but this puts them into an “away” stance. As do all don’t-feel-the-way-you-do responses like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “you’ll be over this in no time” and even worse, “have another drink.”

We are as individuals and as groups inclined to make bad feelings go away. The “we can fix this” response is a little more evolved. Yet this will still put people into an “away” state. These “fix” responses often appeal to changing the environment or waiting for things to get better.

Noticing how unhelpful these baseline responses are because they will put the person into an “away” state is the first step in developing your backhand.

Step Two – Eliciting through Curiosity

Remaining open to their experience, asking follow-up questions, and sympathizing are all part of this step.Whether you have no idea what to say or are irritated by asking follow-ups, this is the place to assess your risk if you were to listen like the naturally gifted listeners.

This step can feel to some like they are justifying the premise of what the person is saying – such a “debate” mentality will destroy your ability to influence. We all prefer to hit our forehand; tennis players will even run around their backhand in order to hit their forehand. This increases the risk of errors in tennis, and also when managing people.

Use these opportunities to observe yourself in the moment and note the “voice of cost” rising in you. What is at stake for you as you endure them? “Time” is too broad and unhelpful; there is likely something underneath this.

Write down what you feel is at-risk by listening to them. These are the natural constraints that may be limiting the development of your backhand.

Step Three – Forming with Thought Experiments

This step begins when you identify those people who feel like a “time suck” to you. Make a list of those people, along with what you believe would happen if you were to give them a little more attention when they speak – it’s important that you not distract yourself internally with other thoughts. Don’t run around your backhand!

Think about the most common moment where someone is constructing you as the other-half of the equation. Jack was likely thinking to himself, “Here we go again…Bill didn’t hear me last time and won’t hear me this time.” In your mind, try moving along the spectrum of empathic listening:

  • If you tend to ignore people, try on a “don’t feel the way you’re feeling” response.
  • If you already do this, try a “we can fix this” response.
  • If you regularly try the “fix” response, move to a “remaining present” with their experience response (something like sympathy or asking for more information).
  • If you already remain present, try to identify a single feeling – “It sounds like you’re feeling _____?”
  • If you can identify and reflect the single feeling, try the advanced approach, “I can’t imagine how _____ that must have been for you.”

Whatever your thought experiment, try to ask a follow-up question. Resist the urge to follow-up with a “fix it” statement. (Note: choose people whose responses you can likely assume; these are exactly the assumptions you’ll be testing later.)

Notice that merely identifying and naming a single feeling does not mean that you are justifying the premise of having such a feeling. All you’re doing is noticing and naming. This is a mindfulness practice. You are establishing a beachhead in your brain.

Write down what you expect and add a level-of-frustration scale. On a scale from 1-10, how frustrated do you imagine you will be if you were to humor them?

Run a few thought experiments and create three possible outcomes. A general “pleasantly surprised,” a “neutral,” and a “this-stinks” set of imagined results will do.

Step Four – Interviewing

Find 1-3 people who listen well and ask them questions. Ask them how they manage their time enough to give so much attention to others. Whatever you wrote down about the costs of listening, ask them why it’s o.k. for them to risk those same costs. Practicing with thought experiments in step three will give you better questions to ask here.

Finally, ask them if they believe good listening is important to their bottom line, and if so, why? Can they compare the efficiency of listening well with trying to “fix” things?

Write down anything they said that sounded unique or surprising to you. This should help you create a little bit of breathing room as you continue developing your backhand with safe behavior changes.

Step Five – Safe Experiments

In this step, you’ll take the insights that you’ve gained by observing your automatic responses to others’ claims on your time and energy, and your thought experiments, and tinker with them. Before each experiment, write down how frustrated you believe you will be on a 1-10 scale, and how much time you will “spend/lose/invest” on a 1-10 scale. When you have a qualitative list of downsides and quantitative values for frustration and time spent, you have a baseline from which to experiment.

The safe experiments to run should be around remaining present with their experience. In many ways, this is the hardest step. Here is where all of your “voices of cost” will protest. Keep the experiment safe by preparing yourself to say, “Would you mind if we picked this up a bit later, because I’ve got a deadline that is looming?”

You have a baseline of assumptions that you are testing. You are not just listening, you are “listening in order to experiment.” This shift in mindset competes with the Primal Learning Loop, the part of your brain that compels you to avoid time-suck people.

Run the experiment three times with three different people. After each experiment, write down the actual frustration you felt on a scale from 1-10, and the actual “time suck” it was on a scale from 1-10.  No matter what the results, you will have data. As Peter Drucker famously wrote, if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed. Data will help you manage the development of your backhand.

After you’ve scored frustration and time-suck, write down what you’ve learned. If it wasn’t as bad as you had assumed, write that down. If it was worse, write that down, and include whether or not any bad consequence happened. The single most powerful result is when the consequences you imagine actually manifest, but you no longer care.

Step Six – Less Safe Experiments

After you have done a few safe experiments, you can select people for the next level, which is experimenting with the last two aspects of empathic listening: identifying a single underlying feeling and empathizing with their overall experience.

The easiest way to begin this is to tinker with the following responses to someone’s download: “It sounds like you are feeling ____ ?” and only later, “I can’t imagine how you must have felt.”

With the less-safe experiments, you are risking more of a frustration/time-suck dynamic. Your responses to your 1-10 scales for both of those elements should logically be higher than in the safe experiments. Remind yourself that you’ve been here before. If you have run the safe experiments three or more times, you should have some confidence that your curiosity about listening can be rewarded.

One aspect of experimenting with listening is impossible to overcome: you will need to be open to a longer view on your feedback loops. It is not immediately obvious that you will get a return on your investment of listening; but it is clear that stifling or ignoring people puts you at risk for being too brittle to successfully pivot in an information economy. You will need to pay attention and remain curious about the cascade effects of your increased engagement.

Start writing down questions for yourself, questions that reflect a longer time horizon. “I wonder if investing my time by listening more/more deeply with _____________ will have positive impacts on anyone else?”; “Did the time spent materially affect my performance in any way; what did I actually lose?”; “How am I being regarded these days by those I trust or by those that may not have fully trusted me?”

A great way to run this part of your process is to do a 360 review before and after your months of experimenting with empathic listening.

Step Seven – Consolidate in a Narrative

This step happens anywhere from a few months to a year after you begin to experiment with the spectrum of empathic listening. I like to follow C.G. Jung/Joseph Campbell’s model of the “hero’s journey” when creating the narrative around developing one’s backhand. (I give a detailed outline of this in The Spectrum of Assertive Speaking, so please consult that piece if you’re interested in specifics.)

The writing down of everything that did and did not happen, the perceived and actual impacts, and the novel emergence of creative actions and unexpected positive feedback are critical for success. Do not skip this step! You have been jotting things down all along but putting them into a narrative is part of the hero’s journey when it comes to inner work. The Primal Learning Loop is not easy to compete with. You will continue to feel uncomfortable until your internal calculus automatically computes the value of empathic listening.

A High Empathy Example

Remember Bill and Jack? Both of them were tired of having the same three-minute conversation over and over. Both of them earnestly want to use their precious time to help make the organization better. Bill sincerely wants to use Jack’s advice, and Jack is giving sincere advice! What may be missing is some better empathic listening skills. While this example comes from my own coaching practice, there are likely hundreds of thousands of conversations like this happening every day, with enormous efficiency costs to everyone. Let’s see what happens when Jack gets a little leadership coaching to listen better:

Bill:      Jack, thanks for taking the time.

Jack:    Of course, what’s going on?

Bill:      Well…sometimes I feel like my team doesn’t hear me. Yesterday I tried – once again – to offload some simple tasks so that I could focus on creating my presentation, but it didn’t go well. I told Emily about my presentation, and how pressed for time I was, and mentioned that we needed to complete the spreadsheets for you before Friday, and when I asked her what she had on her plate, she pushed back by letting me know she was pretty busy with next week’s investor meeting. I just don’t know what to do, maybe I need a new assistant.

Jack:    That sounds frustrating… it would be nice if people could pick up on obvious cues.

Bill:      Yeah, I mean, I thought it was clear what I was asking for.

Jack:    I wonder what would happen if you were to take a slightly different approach? Like, what if you were to tell Emily that you understand how busy she is, but you need her to handle the spreadsheets this time because you need to focus on the strategic stuff like your presentation? How do you think she would respond to that?

Bill:      Hmmm… it’s pretty direct, and as you know I like to be the team cheerleader… I guess I’m a little uncomfortable but if I want to manage my time more efficiently, I might have to switch my approach.

Jack:    And you are a great cheerleader! But maybe you can put a new tool in your toolbox? I think it’s normal to feel a little uncomfortable about things like this, nobody really gets trained to do this in school, but you might find that people are more willing when you paint a picture for them with a little nudge of direct language.

Bill:      O.K., I’ll give this a try… fingers crossed!

Notice that, while the conversation is a little bit longer, it is a low-risk, high-reward situation. Bill is likely leaning-in when Jack acknowledges his frustration. Such leadership bonding is part of being a mentor to followers.

Yet “bonding” may be exactly what you don’t want as a leader. But what if Bill succeeds with Emily? Not only will Bill be breaking his unsuccessful cycle of avoiding delegation, he will learn that he could generalize his experience with Emily to other colleagues. Jack will have generated efficiencies, both between himself and Bill, and between Bill and Bill’s colleagues.

By having a five-minute conversation one or two times, you save the many three-minute conversations you’ll have otherwise. And Bill can feel good about running an experiment that his leader helped him create. It is precisely this cascade-effect of empathic listening that results in an overall increase of efficiency, resulting in greater positive regard for leaders.

Some Final Thoughts

When the value of empathic listening starts to overtake the perceived loss of efficiency, you will begin to live in a world where spending time building trust results in a better bottom line because you have built stronger relationships.

It is interesting that the most evolved aspect in the spectrum of empathic listening is also the most efficient response – “I can’t imagine how difficult/rough/frustrating/depressing that must have been for you.” When you can respond meaningfully like this, you will likely find that you have more time, not less. Being seen and heard is an important need that leaders would do well to remember when listening.

And if anyone does continuously “rob” you of time, with no concomitant rise in their level of effectiveness or creativity, then nobody can fault you for limiting that relationship. You can and should expect people to raise their game as you are raising yours.

For everyone else, you can remind yourself that “Their feelings matter; their trust in me extends beyond them on behalf of my positive regard.” This will help you test the universe even as you test yourself.

For some, it can feel smothering to bear through another’s story. For other people, it’s a violation to speak their mind. For them, the Spectrum of Assertive Speaking is perhaps a better process for their growth and development. Communication is the playing field that is both private and public for who we are and who we are becoming. Learning the actual downsides for listening is one way to access your ongoing evolution. As I often say, “Life is a No-Standing Zone” where you are both the offender and the authority. For each efficiency risk you take, greater positive regard – and therefore influence and opportunity – can be the result.