Empathic Listening: The Make or Break in Building Trust

We started 2019 with excitement because these past few weeks we have started our engagement with a company we have been admiring for so long! This company has shaped the digital ecosystem in Indonesia for the better. It’s a privilege for us to work with them.

Our engagement started with us getting as much information as possible to understand and appreciate the current challenges and practices inside the company. Practices that work or perhaps don’t. Any information that will be valuable for our later analysis.

To get the information, we have been given permission to conduct interviews. As it turned out, not only we got useful information, but we also learned something valuable that we hadn’t anticipated.

An interview is a combination of art and skill. It consists of talking (or asking questions) and listening. However, we learned that the act of listening, instead of talking, should take the most time during the interview. But, not just any kind of listening. We’re specifically referring to the emphatic listening and active listening. These two play a big role in the success of our interviews.

What exactly are emphatic listening and active listening? And how do these two types of listening can make or break the interview?

We’ll discuss empathic listening in this edition and active listening next.

To understand what empathic listening means, let’s break it down:

  1. Emphatic is the adjective for empathy. There are many different types of empathy, such as emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is described as “feeling what others feel”, while cognitive empathy is described as “understanding what others feel.” In this context, empathy refers to cognitive empathy.
  2. Listening is an act of hearing what other people are saying and trying to understand what it means.
  3. Empathic listening means an act of listening with empathy; the process of hearing what other people are saying and trying to understand what it means by understanding what they feel.

In short, when you’re practicing empathic listening, you’re listening without judgment. No matter what the other person says, you absorb it without agreeing or disagreeing. No judgment of right or wrong. You just take in the information.

We believe a successful interview to gather information is built on empathic listening. If you want the other person to open up to you, you need to create a safe environment for them, a place where they can talk honestly about what they feel. They shouldn’t feel afraid of being judged nor should they feel the need to filter what they have to say.

This might seem like a contradiction for most of us. When people are talking, what most of us do is formulating a response in our head. We do this because we’re used to it or because we want to look smart or quickwitted. The problem with that is it shows you don’t listen to understand them. You listen to reply to them.

That is why empathic listening doesn’t come naturally for most of us. Empathic listening is not easy because it is a conscious action. First, we need to be aware of the listening process that takes place. We have to be fully present at the moment. Second, it takes a conscious effort to listen with empathy.

Listening with empathy looks like this: when someone is talking to you, you imagine yourself in their situation. When they are speaking, you make an effort to think of where they are coming from and why. You imagine what they feel and what struggles they are facing.

Empathic listening is crucial during the interview because it really helps laying out the foundation of trust between the interviewer and interviewee. When we actually listen to them with empathy, we give a signal that we seek to understand them as a person. We encourage them to be candor with their answer. As a result, when the interviewee feels they’re being listened to without being judged, it builds trust.

The funny thing is we always tell them that the result of the interview is confidential. But, action speaks louder than words. The interviewee can pick up the verbal and nonverbal cues coming from us as the interviewers.

To make sure the verbal and nonverbal cues do not say the wrong message, these have worked well for us:

  1. We sit on the same side as the interviewee, instead of on the opposite side. This creates an atmosphere of friendly conversation while sitting on the opposite side might create a more adversarial vibe.
  2. When the interviewee speaks, we lean our body forward to the interviewee. This gives a signal that we are interested to hear what the interviewee has to say.
  3. We never interrupt the interviewee when they’re talking unless it’s obvious that they’re lost their train of thoughts. In that case, we should help them to formulate their answer, but in the end, always ask for confirmation whether that’s what they’re looking for. The goal is not telling them what to say, but helping them to say the things on their mind.
  4. The basic rule of conversation also applies: keeping eye contact with the interviewee. It tells them our focus is on them. It also won’t hurt to smile once in a while.

Empathic listening is the first of two listening techniques that we practiced during the interview. We realized emphatic listening is only half of the equation, because the purpose of the interview is to find out the current situation, including the challenges. Seeking to understand them is the first step, but we also need to be active in asking the follow-up questions to their answers. This is called active listening, which we’ll talk about in the next article.


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