Listening and Empathy: Lost Arts

When clients hire me to train their staff in “soft skills,” they often ask me to teach “communications skills.”   They want their people to be able to create and give presentations, write coherently, speak courteously to help desk clients or identify business requirements by effectively interviewing end-users.

When I am hired to do Change Management for an IT Project, clients ask me to create a Communications Plan.  That plan includes key stakeholders and the message or key points we want to communicate to each person or group.

What both of these scenarios show is that we are seeking to “talk” to “transmit” a message, but not to receive.  Where is the listening?

When I teach communications, whether asked to or not, I use a Listening Styles instrument and focus on teaching IT staff to listen.  As a rule of thumb we are supposed to listen twice as much as we speak.  I know of no one (including myself) who reaches this goal on a regular basis.

And in Change Management listening to stakeholders’ concerns, requirements and fears is equally as important as telling them what is coming.

Although listening is a “soft skill,” it can at least be measured, i.e.  you can test someone to see if they heard key information, if they noticed the mood the speaker was in (calm, agitated), if they saw a message in the speaker’s body language (nervous, worried, confident.)  The information they retain and the non-verbal messages they pick up tell you how well they were listening.

But in addition to listening, IT executives need to develop their ability to empathize.  And when I say empathize, I mean the ability to put one’s self in someone else’s place and relate to the way he or she feels.  For example, when IT is bringing massive change to an organization by implementing an ERP, how do the people whose work processes and daily life this will change feel about it?  Put yourself in their place and you may be asking – Will I be able to do my job?  Can I learn the new software?  Will I be able to compete with younger workers?  Will my business skills become obsolete?

Unfortunately, there is no way that I know of to measure empathy.  Either you are empathetic, or you are not.

But why does a discussion of “soft skills” like listening and empathy belong in a Career blog?  Aren’t these entries supposed to be focused on helping you find your next job?  Or at least focused on building your professional credentials?  What do listening and empathy have to do with this?

Actually, they may have a great deal to do with both finding your next job and building your credentials.  In a job interview most candidates are focused on talking about themselves and impressing the potential employer with their knowledge and experience.  Maybe instead you should focus on listening.  What is the employer really looking for?  If you listen, instead of talking, they will usually tell you exactly what they want and need from you.  And if you go one step further and empathize – what is this poor, bedeviled person interviewing you  feeling?  How is he/she coping without a <fill in the open job title.>  Whether the open position is a CIO or a Director of Application Development, they are probably feeling pain because this position is open.  There is work and leadership that are not happening because they are without a key person.

The truly excellent job candidate hears what the potential employer needs and empathizes with what they feel.   The exemplary CIO listens to his staff, to his stakeholders and to his service providers and uses his understanding of what each is looking for to run a better IT organization.

So focus, at least a little bit, on your listening skills and your ability and willingness to empathize.  You may find it makes you not only a better IT executive and job candidate, but a better person.

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