Learning Empathy – The Art of Listening

“Yeah, I heard you”, he said with a look that would peel paint from a car door. “You may have heard me, but were you listening”, she replied. “I said I heard you what more do you want!”

We’ve all heard this scenario play out before… hell, I think I’ve been on both sides of that conversation at least a few times in my life. The problem isn’t in whether or not I have the capacity to hear sounds travelling through the air at 340 m/s (the speed of sound for the uninitiated or scientifically challenged). The question is, can I truly hear what is being conveyed in those sounds; can I connect with the emotional content and context within the subtleties of the persons tone, body language, emphasis, and word choice. Can I truly listen?

The human brain is an amazing thing. Research shows that it has the capacity to comprehend words at a very high rate, say 400 words per minute. The conundrum for most listeners is that the human mouth is not so adept, it can only speak at around 125 words per minute. This causes a bit of an issue because in that gray area of just around 275 words per minute where we have the capacity to listen but not the capacity to speak, we get bored. Well, maybe we get bored. Whatever we do, it is likely that our brains are not as adept at registering those subtleties that make up the humanness of our everyday interactions.

This ability to pick up on those subtleties is called empathy and it is the cornerstone of all relationship building and the foundation for an entrepreneurial mindset.

Good relationships are, for lack of a better term… good. They are so vital to the success of  businesses, families, and friendships. I’m not at all contesting the value of good relationships and certainly empathy plays a vital role there; entire volumes are dedicated to this noble pursuit. Empathy as a practice in business, especially in the start-up arena is an absolutely vital and often vastly overlooked skill. You see, if a person cannot feel the pain of another person, if they cannot walk that proverbial mile in their shoes, they cannot ascertain with any relevance the potential problems that person may face in their everyday life. If they cannot relate to these problems then how can they ever hope of solving them. And if there are no problems to solve then what is the entrepreneur to do? Attempt to do the same thing as the next guy and hope that the customer picks them?

No, as entrepreneurs, we have to build a compelling case founded on value. That value can only be derived from a sense of empathy, and empathy can only be derived from listening.

I was reading a blog post by Karabi Acharya of Ashoka in which she attributes the success of American Idol and Kickstarter to the quality of empathy. In her eyes, “The connection between a listener and a storyteller knits the fabric that can strengthen empathy, generate ideas, and ignite action.” The stories we see unfold on American Idol compel us to keep watching. The stories we read on Kickstarter compel us to become a part of another person’s dream. These compelling cases are made through the art of storytelling. They are important examples, but they are engineered to create empathy. What of everyday conversations? What of the daily interactions we have with others? Can we also seek to find an empathetic ear there?

I believe so. I believe that empathy is a skill just like riding a bike or learning to swim.

In her blog post on Dumb Little Man, Gail Brenner, Ph.D builds a list of attributes we can strive for as we become more empathetic listeners. I won’t bother to recite them here, you are more than capable of clicking the link and reading them yourself but I will share with you some of the things I’m working on.

I”m a high-energy idea guy and I rarely go into a conversation without a plan for what I hope to get out of it. for me, life is all about results and I am out to get those results. When I enter into a conversation with this mindset, I have a hard time being open to what the other person is sending me. When I have narrowed my field of reception to only what I am looking for, I cut myself off from the richness of the interaction and see less worth in the story of the person I am interacting with. I miss out on the best parts because of my get-things-done attitude.

Today, I am working to enter into every interaction with an open mind and an open heart. I am working to set aside my agenda and my expectations to really be open to what each and every conversation has to offer. I have a feeling I’m in for some surprises.

Let me know what your working on and let me know how your doing it… it gets lonely out here all by myself and I need someone to practice my new empathetic skills with.