Empathy and Listening: Two Keys to Interpersonal Competence

Today is Friday, so this post is on interpersonal competence. 

Yesterday, I mentioned my book Solving Performance Problems, and highlighted some of the advice in it on helping others feel good about themselves.  Today, I’d like to highlight some of the advice on empathy that I presented to leaders in Solving Performance Problems.

Interpersonally competent people are empathic.  They are able to understand things from other people’s points of view.  Not too get too political here, but I think our world would be a better place if we all tried to understand the other guy’s point of view when we get into a disagreement, instead of just stating ours more loudly.  Enough comments on our world, here’s the advice on empathy

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Work hard at understanding your people and their points of view.  Develop empathy.  The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines empathy as:

  • “The capacity for, and action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person  without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

You won’t always share common experiences with the people you lead, but you need to be able to understand their experiences and alter your behavior to deal with them.  You need to be able to walk a mile in their shoes.  This skill is critical if you’re going to be able to understand and fix performance problems.

Empathy is a critical leadership characteristic.  In my coaching work with newly appointed leaders, I encounter one complaint more often than any other.  New leaders are often frustrated because the people they lead aren’t as motivated as they are.  They tell me things like: “my people just don’t have a sense of urgency”, “they just don’t seem to care”, “they should know what to do, I shouldn’t have to tell them”, “when I had their job, I always knew what I was supposed to do”.  Every one of these statements is a clear indication of a lack of empathy on the part of the leaders.  The mere fact that they have a sense of urgency, really care about performance, and have a clear idea of what it takes to succeed, doesn’t mean that the people they lead do.  Assuming that another person has the same motivations as you is always risky business. 

Listening is key to empathy.  Here’s what I had to say about listening in Solving Performance Problems.


Listen to the people around you – especially the people you lead.  Listen for more than just the facts.  Listen for the emotions behind the facts.  Spend time getting to know your people – as unique, individual human beings, not just interchangeable parts of the work process.  When someone comes to you with a request, the mere fact that you listened to them is often more important than whether you agree with, or approve the request.  People like to feel that they are heard, it makes them feel good about themselves. 

Listening is difficult, especially when we disagree with what a person is saying.  All too often we get caught up in forming our rebuttal instead of really concentrating on, and trying to understand what a person is saying.  Listen the hardest when you hear something with which you don’t agree.  Those conversations have the most possibilities for you to learn something. 

There is a Native American saying “listen to the whispers, and you won’t have to hear the screams”.  Listen hard to your people’s whispers, because that’s where you’ll find the seeds of discontent.  By the time whispers become screams, it can be too late to do anything about them.

There is a side benefit to listening.  People who listen learn more than people who don’t.  Larry King, whose not a bad listener in his own right, has said, “I remind myself every morning that nothing I say this day will teach me anything.  So if I’m going to learn, I have to listen.”  You can learn all kinds of things by listening, especially what’s going on in your organization.  Listening will help you stop crises before they get started.

The common sense point in all of this is simple.  Interpersonally competent people are empathic.  They develop empathy by honing their listening skills.  Listen to understand people, and you’ll become an interpersonally competent person.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website www.BudBilanich.com to subscribe to my monthly ezine and for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: www.CommonSenseGuy.com for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to www.FirstGiving.com/TheCommonSenseGuy to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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