“No, you’re not listening to me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You’re putting words into my mouth.”
Interpersonal conflict, communication breakdowns, and dysfunctional teams often share one common denominator: a shortage of empathy skills. Of course, conflict-free collaboration only happens in utopias, especially when you throw demographic and cognitive diversity into the mix.
For this reason, leaders who find themselves in a bind when it comes to facilitating effective collaboration have a lot to gain by ensuring that their teams practice greater empathy with one another. Here’s how.
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You reap what you sow. Leaders set the tone for how the rest of the team behaves with one another. A supervisor who doesn’t practice empathy in his leadership isn’t likely to succeed in engendering it in his subordinates.
Empathetic leaders recognise the importance of personal relationships in engendering trust, motivation, engagement, and effective collaboration. They don’t take any for it for granted, and consistently show their people that they’re fighting tooth and nail for the team in success and in failure.
Showing genuine concern and understanding for each other is crucial in developing good empathic skills. Listening is one of the simplest (yet also, paradoxically, the hardest) means of achieving this.
There’s a difference between hearing what someone else is saying and actually listening to them. So often, people hear each other out with the aim of putting each other down; they prefer to make others listen to them rather than the other way round. The problem is, you can’t begin to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you’re not listening properly to their perspectives.
Here, practicing active listening is key. Help people understand that the act of listening well isn’t passive; it requires you to actively process, confirm, analyse, and then respond to what you’re hearing. Most people, though, skip straight to the response.
Sound and communication expert Julian Treasure has a helpful acronym (“RASA”) that distills what constitutes good listening:
We make assumptions about each other and about the world all the time, day in and day out. It’s the brain’s way of being efficient with how it expends mental energy. For example, maybe the office’s new hire isn’t really fond of team lunches, so we assume they’re a little snobbish and full of it.
Practicing empathy with others, though, often requires that you do away with assumptions, particularly when your team is demographically diverse. When you assume, for instance, that a minority team member doesn’t mind that the rest of the team often defaults to Mandarin in informal settings, you’re unintentionally enabling their alienation. In this way, making frequent assumptions about other can be potentially corrosive and damaging to team rapport.
The cure is simple. Make it a team norm to simply ask for clarification (without being presumptive, condescending, or dismissive) instead of just assuming everyone’s always on the same page.