Category Archives: Listening skills

The power of empathy

“What would Madonna do?” – an example of a type of question you might ask if you’re stuck with an idea and need to look at it from a different perspective. Obviously you can substitute Madonna for a variety of people/things e.g. a teenager, Nelson Mandela, a robot, an organic farmer…The key is to consciously step outside yourself and take a different viewpoint.

This led me to wonder whether people with strong empathy skills (i.e. more easily able to step outside themselves and see the other viewpoint) would be better equipped for coming up with new ideas.

To consider this I needed to break down what exactly the skills of empathy are. Fortunately, I discovered that Roman Krznaric has already done this, and gave a great talk about it at the RSA.

The six ‘habits’ Roman talks about are:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
  3. Experiential empathy.
  4. Practise the art of conversation.
  5. Inspire mass action and social change.
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination.

These habits seem to me to be fundamental to idea development. To start with, being curious about others and having good conversations would certainly open you up to new ideas/connections. Then, an ambitious imagination about, for example, the future could help spark ideas/inspiration. Also, challenging prejudices helps to open up new ways of thinking about a problem. Whereas discovering commonalities can help bring together previously unrelated issues to solve a problem. Getting experiential – really trying out what it’s like to live how someone else lives is a rich and powerful way to inspire ideas. And all of these habits could create an idea which would lead to social change.

Everybody would agree that empathy is a good thing. But perhaps this very simple, human ability, when actively practised could power meaningful, deep ideas and change.

Do you think empathy should be more actively practised? Which of the habits do you currently practise or would like to practise? Can empathy power change?


Seek first to understand…

My dad has always said: “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason” – a simple but effective way of reminding me how important it is to listen (as does this picture by David Shrigley!).

This is underlined in a book my dad gave me – ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ by Stephen Covey, where the fifth habit is ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. This is about empathic listening, really deeply listening to the other person without any ‘autobiographical’ responses such as probing, evaluating, advising or interpreting. The main practical skill to use in empathic listening is rephrasing content and reflecting the feeling e.g.

Son: “Dad I give up! School is boring.”      Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school.”

Here frustration is the unsaid feeling being reflected and school is the content.

It seems that listening is becoming a more important topic of thought today, probably partly because our world is so noisy/frenetic. A good recent example is the BBC/British Library collaboration ‘The Listening Project’. Although its aim is to build up a picture of our lives today, its focus on doing this through recorded conversation serves as a reminder of the power of one to one conversation to create deep connection.

This focus on conversation is vital in a world where, according to a recent TED Talk by Sherry Turkle, we “…sacrifice conversation for mere connection.”

This talk also feeds into the growing need to think more about the level of our listening skills today. Turkle addresses this through the use of technology – one point she makes is that tweeting and texting doesn’t allow us to really learn about each other, to understand each other. She suggests we can end up hiding from each other even though we are constantly connected to each other. Certainly my life has more texting than talking nowadays.

However, I think its OK to have a world with texts and tweets as long as they exist alongside conversation and listening. I think what would help is a more conscious focus on listening skills – I have found that since I started focusing on my listening skills I realised how much I wasn’t really listening before. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of waiting for the other person to finish so you can share your related experience.

Improving listening skills will also help with creativity and idea generation – as Covey says in his book: “When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives” Who knows what great idea you might miss if you’re not listening properly?

Do you practise empathic listening in your facilitation? How can you improve your everyday listening skills?

Managing the unknown through questioning

The title of this post comes from the International Foundation for Action Learning , as this week I had my first taste of Action Learning. This is all about groups (or ‘sets’) working together on real problems, using the current knowledge of the group and ‘questioning insight’.

In the session I attended one member of the group described a problem and everyone else wrote down one ‘open’ question about the problem. The person with the problem then answered some of the questions, and these answers sparked more questions from the group. This way, the person with the problem was realising the answers and ideas she already had hidden in her brain.

This gentle, yet powerful, process underlines the importance of asking questions when trying to come up with ideas.

In the book Gamestorming five types of idea sparking questions are outlined:

  1. Opening – to generate ideas/options and provoke thought e.g. What kinds of things do we want to explore? What are the biggest problem areas?
  2. Navigating – to summarise key points and check the group is aligned e.g. Is this helping us to get where we want to go? Are we on track?
  3. Examining – for observation and analysis, to narrow your enquiry and focus on details e.g. What is it made of? Can you give me an example of that?
  4. Experimental – to invoke the imagination and make unlikely connections e.g. What else works like this? If this were an animal, what animal would it be and why?
  5. Closing – to gain commitment and make decisions e.g. How can we prioritise these options? Who is going to do that?

Often people equate questioning with interrogation, but when trying to come up with ideas questioning is about collaboration. Having a group of open people asking open questions around a real problem is a simple, but highly effective, way of finding solutions.

How can you build open and exploring questions into your work?

Do you love the sound of your kettle?

In my last post I wrote about how talking to non-experts can help with idea development. But it’s important to point out that the vital thing is not to talk to, but to listen to the non-experts.

Michael Michalko, in ThinkerToys, suggests some ways we can improve our listening skills, including:

  • judge content, not delivery
  • hold your fire (wait until you’ve heard everything)
  • be flexible (use different systems to remember the content)
  • resist distractions

Exploring the issues around listening, I watched this great TED talk by Julian Treasure:

He talks of how to listen more consciously and even enjoy the “background noises in our lives such as a kettle boiling”. He suggests that we can improve our listening by:

  1. Silence
  2. Listening to individual sounds in a mix of sounds
  3. Savouring mundane sounds
  4. Becoming conscious of how you are listening
  5. Receiving (pay attention), Appreciating (show attention), Summarising (so,…), Ask (questions afterwards)

So perhaps if we can improve our listening skills we won’t miss anymore amazing ideas just because our mind wandered or we were distracted by the radio.