Listen, Empathize, Then Advise

There is often a temptation, when listening to others, to express our opinions about what they have done, what they could have done, and what they should do. Often, this stems from a genuine desire to be helpful. However, unless we are asked, this is usually a mistake. Even when we are asked, there is something we usually should do before offering advice.

We often feel the urge to respond to people by “fixing it”. Sometimes people try to fix it by offering reassurance. “It will all be fine,” they say. Other time they take over
the conversation by speaking about their own experiences. “This reminds me of the time when…”

Another way people sometimes try to “fix it” is by offering advice and feedback. “Let me tell you why this was a mistake,” they say, or, “Here is what you should do”.

Why are these responses well-intentioned mistakes? To start with, the first thing people need in such situations (that is, when speaking with emotion) is to be heard, understood and acknowledged. That is, they are seeking empathy, which is a key component of skillful, heart-centered listening. They are not open to hear what we have to say until we have heard them.

In his excellent book, The Lost Art of Listening (p. 64), Dr. Michael Nichols writes:

“The person telling a casual anecdote doesn’t really need an elaborate response. However, there are times when someone has something important to say and doesn’t want to hear your story until she’s had a chance to tell what happened to her and how she felt—and get some acknowledgement.”

This is equally true in business. This is from one of my favorite books on management:

“It is crucially important for people to feel fully listened to and understood. When they feel this way, they will then be ready to hear what you have to say.” – Managing from the Heart (p. 15)

In addition, until we have listened fully to what the speaker has to say–until we have listened, and then listened more, until the speaker is truly complete– we don’t have enough information to give advice. So often, the crux of the issue emerges only towards the end.

In “The Fine Art of Small Talk”, author Debra Fine has a chapter about mistakes people make in conversation. One of those is when we respond to people with advice they did not request. Here is what she writes (page 132):

“The truth is, most people don’t want advice—they want empathy and compassion. When advisers ride in on white horses to save the day, they minimize the very people they are trying to rescue. They presume that in hearing tiny snippets of others’ dilemmas, they have an intimate understanding of their problems and know the perfect solutions. Advisers would do much better digging deeper to learn more about the issues and offering support instead of unsolicited solutions.”

Keep this simple principle in mind and see how much more pleasant your interactions become.

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