it pays to listen

January 25, 2019

Teams are where business is done. Whether it is a team within one department, an interdepartmental group, or a team that includes outside parties such as contractors or clients, it is people working together that creates success.

Yet, not all teams are effective. Some groups seem to gel and work together effortlessly, whereas for others, strife and struggle seem to be the norm, with work progressing in fits and starts. Why the difference? What makes an effective team, and more important, how can you and your employees learn to create teams that crystallize instead of clash?

What is meant by ‘effective’ teamwork? While definitions may differ, I am referring to a group of people who work well together to create outstanding outcomes. After all, this is in the realm of business, where results matter. While many approaches focus on how to set objectives and reach them, improved interpersonal skills ensure that these approaches can live up to their maximum potential.

soft skills are the key

Interpersonal skills are often referred to in business as ‘soft skills’. Though this term implies a devaluing of these skills, in fact, leaders recognize that soft skills are important. As many as three-quarters of business leaders think that these skills are even more important than job-specific (so called hard) skills. Yet, there is also a skills gap here, as many people and businesses focus their professional development offerings on job-specific skills, not on communication and collaboration.

research points to empathy

There is an increasingly large body of research pointing toward the skills that matter most when it comes to creating effective teams. As one example, Patrick Lencioni has written extensively about teams, both what makes them work and what does not. He identifies five dysfunctions of a team—absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. He suggests that some of the characteristics of a high performing team include comfort in asking for help and admitting mistakes, and taking risks in offering feedback.

Recent research at Google points in a similar direction, showing that what distinguishes effective teams is how people interact. Having the right set of behavioral norms makes teams better at working together and achieving their goals, because these norms create a sense of psychological safety. People feel like they can take interpersonal risks and speak their mind without fear of embarrassment or rejection. Respect and trust characterize the interactions between team members. What are the norms that researchers identified? First, people share the stage approximately equally, so everyone on the team contributes, raising the collective intelligence. Second, people exhibit social sensitivity—they intuit how others are feeling based on nonverbal cues. In other words, they empathize.

the role of listening in empathy

One of the most effective ways of empathizing is also one of the most basic of interpersonal skills: listening. Most people may think they listen fairly well already, but I am talking about listening to the speaker’s satisfaction (not to the listener’s).

Why is listening in this way so important? Because when people know they have been understood as they would like to be, then they in turn are more likely to listen so as to understand others in the same way; this builds trust between people. With this kind of listening, over time people know they can be vulnerable. They can say things that might be difficult to say, yet would help the team move forward, with the confidence that there will not be personal repercussions.

listening as a tool to create deeper understanding and connection

Most people listen to others while actually thinking already about what they want to say. Listening, in the way that is referred to here, is first about being present in the moment. It also includes being connected to the person you are listening to by being curious about understanding what they are saying and what needs they are seeking to meet.

By demonstrating your understanding of another’s feelings and needs in that moment, you give the other person a sense of being fully heard.

This process often helps the person who is speaking to you reconnect with themselves and in the process be clearer about what their needs are and how they might go about meeting those needs. There is something ineffable and incredibly valuable about getting to be heard this way and to give the gift of hearing another person this way. And it is what we refer to as empathy.

listening is a learnable skill

For learning purposes, this type of listening, which we are calling empathy, can be broken down into four parts.

Step 01 is a way of being while listening to the speaker without talking to yourself about what they are saying. This is ‘being present’ with the speaker. And this being present is a foundation for each of the following three steps.

After having established being present with both yourself and the speaker, step 02 consists of focusing your attention with curiosity on what the speaker is communicating. Keep in mind that the speaker may not be clearly expressing, or expressing at all, what they are seeking by speaking to you. Also, core to this step is to guess what needs the speaker might be seeking to meet by speaking to you, and to guess what request they might have of you, even if all they are really asking for is to be listened to.

Step 03 is when you begin to verify with the speaker whether the guesses you have silently made are right. It is not important that your first guesses are accurate. By you making the guess, the speaker has the opportunity to clarify what it is they want you to hear. When the speaker starts a conversation, they may not know why they are asking you to listen to them and what they want to result from the conversation. So, your initial guesses both help them get to get clearer within themselves what they want from this conversation, and also how to communicate it to you in a way you understand. So, you are now in an iterative process in which your guesses help the speaker become more self-aware, and in becoming more self-aware, they are able to articulate to you what
they want.

In step 04, you build upon your understanding and the speaker’s clarity developed during step 03. Step 04 is the icing on the cake to the understanding you and the speaker developed between you in step 03. In step 04, you seek to support the speaker to identify the needs that they want to meet, and any strategies, plans, and requests they might have that they hope would meet those needs. By needs, I mean that which is motivating the speaker. Needs are universal to all humans. Each of us has a need for air, water, shelter, touch, care, meaning, autonomy, etc. And when a person is able to identify the need that is motivating them, they open up a doorway of communication to others and parts of themselves that they may be in conflict with. So, identification of needs is a way of harmonizing the voices interior to all of us and harmonizing us with others.


listening exercise using four elements of empathy
Work with a practise partner in a quiet space where you will be undisturbed for 20 to 30 minutes. Agree with your partner who is going to be the speaker first, and who will be the listener first, and who will keep track of the time.
Step 01 (1 Minute) The speaker begins speaking about something that is important to them. The listener’s task is to silently be “present” with themselves and with the speaker, and seek to clear their mind so they are not talking with themselves about what the speaker is saying, nor planning what they will say next.
Step 02 (1 Minute) The speaker continues to speak about what is important to them. The listener shifts within their own head to guessing what has prompted what the speaker is saying, how the speaker is feeling, what need is motivating their communication and lastly, what request they might have of the themselves, the listener or someone else.
Step 03 (2 minutes) The speaker continues to speak about what is important to them. The listener shifts to interrupting the speaker to make guesses about what the speaker wants them to hear. The listener’s goal is to hear the speaker ‘as they would like to be heard’. The listener follows the speaker wherever they go in what they say and efforts not to critique the speaker’s logic, try to convince the speaker that they mean something different than what they say they mean or to give advice. Likewise, the listener avoids interrupting the speaker’s flow to tell the speaker about something similar in their life. The speaker directs the conversation and is the authority on what they are trying to communicate.
Step 04 (2 minutes) The speaker continues to speak about what is important to them. The listener now interjects to guess speaker’s needs.
After the completions of the six minutes, the speaker and the listener shift to giving each other feedback. The speaker gives feedback to the listener on how they felt when the speaker made their guesses about what the speaker wanted them to hear, and about the speaker’s needs. Next, the listener reports to the speaker how it was for them when they were listening. The feedback time is not a time for the speaker or the Listener to critique, criticize or educate their partner on how they should have done the exercise. Instead, this is a time to report how you felt at various points during the process. After completing the feedback for a few minutes, reverse roles and begin the exercise again.

After the feedback is complete, endeavor to restrain yourself from educating your partner with advice, suggestions or criticisms without first asking your partner if they welcome this.


My suggestion is that you and your team members practise the listening exercise in the sidebar until you are confident using this approach in your everyday life, or so long as you perceive some benefit from the exercise. Some people do a version of this exercise nearly every week with a practise partner for years. They are not doing this practise to learn. They are doing this practise because of the intrinsic satisfaction they get from listening and being listened to in this way.

As a manager, you and your team need to possess skills particular to your profession, and others related to time management and various contemporary techniques intended to improve self-management and management of others. The type of listening I have offered here fits with and enhances all of these, and over time, builds the trust that is the foundation for superior collaboration. What is more, I have found this to be equally true in each of the 21 countries in which I have offered trainings; it is a cross-cultural phenomenon. You will find that possessing this skill will allow you and your teams to reach solutions more quickly, solutions that prove to be not only superior, but more durable. Because in the end, empathy is not just good for your team, it is good for your business.

Sections of this article have been adapted from Collaborating in the Workplace: A Guide for Building Better Teams, which will be published by PuddleDancer Press in March, 2019