Want to be more empathic? Try listening with your eyes closed

Want to be more empathic? Try listening with your eyes closed

This is how the Japanese listen to speakers. When someone addresses a group in Japan, the audience will shut their eyes and listen with their heads bowed. They are focusing on the Hara, an energy field that is centred around the navel of the abdomen. This response can be extremely disconcerting to outsiders who are invited to talk and are unaware of the practice.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Japanese about the skill of listening with empathy.

Skills can be hard or soft. Hard skills can be made explicit and overt, taught and passed down hierarchies with relative ease. Apprenticeship remains the major route for acquiring hard skills.

In earlier times, you could thrive on your hard skills alone. You could be rude, gruff and inhospitable, but the world would beat a path to your product. Not so any more.

Soft skills are vital in an age where technology is usurping and executing physical tasks. Soft skills are tacit — much harder to teach and certify. There are varying degrees of difficulty in the quest to acquire them. Indeed, there are some that can’t be taught; empathy may be one such.

Humans are social animals. Except for the occasional hermit, we need contact with our fellow humans on a regular, sustained basis. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense: connected groups have a better chance of survival than solo artists. Many people, even though they have strong feelings about wanting to connect with others, have problems with social connection and understanding.

Communication skills head the list of useful social soft skills. This is the age of networks where persons who are most valued and respected — influencers — are those who are deemed to be good with people at all levels, not tied down by rigid hierarchies and social strata.

  • Listening skills are very important tools for being a good communicator. Empathy — the ability to feel another person’s emotions, particularly pain — is the cornerstone of good listening.
  • Humans have an impressive array of tools for expressing and perceiving emotions. Body language and facial expressions are two traditional outward manifestations that can be read by listeners. They can often convey more messages than words.
  • Nevertheless, the spoken word is the cornerstone of communication. The voice is a particularly powerful channel for expressing emotions. In addition to the linguistic and content elements of speech, there are “paralinguistic” vocal cues that may provide effective pointers to underlying feelings which impel the words. These include volume, pitch and cadence.

Empathic accuracy is a skill with which individuals can effectively judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others.

In 2017, Michael Kraus from the Yale University School of Management published a very intriguing piece of research. The study was carried out with 1772 participants. The central prediction tested in these studies was that voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy relative to communication across senses. In other words, shutting off sight could enhance empathic accuracy.

The data showed that voice-only communication elicited higher rates of empathic accuracy relative to vision-only and multisense communication, both while engaging in interactions and perceiving emotions in recorded interactions of strangers.

  • Voice-only communication is likely to enhance empathic accuracy by increasing focused attention on the linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues that accompany speech.

It seems as though the advice to listen with your mouth shut needs to be extended to the eyes as well!

Reference: Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. Michael W. Kraus, Yale University, School of Management, American Psychologist 2017, Vol. 72, No. 7, 644–654

Read this article in LinkedIn