Listening and Empathy – The Answers to Pandemic-Induced Stress

In my last blog, I explored the fundamentals – and importance – of Emotional Intelligence for leaders. The fastest way to start raising your “EQ” is to work on becoming a more effective listener. Listening is an often overlooked but critical leadership skill. Unfortunately, uncertainty, stress and anxiety can undermine our ability to listen. That puts us at a tremendous disadvantage in a pandemic. We’ve all been living under increased and sustained stress levels for months, with no end in sight. The challenge is to leverage our EQ to counter the negative effects of stress.

While stress does not affect hearing, it can have a huge impact on listening. Hearing is a physical ability. Listening is a learned and practiced skill. Unfortunately, people have long confused the two, which can stall the career of many an emerging leader. Hearing does not become listening until you pay attention not just to what is said, but also to the look and sound of how things are said.  That’s what we call “active listening.”

Active listeners make the most of their senses. They listen to understand, rather than to respond. They take in everything, listening to absorb meaning beyond words, and by doing so, they often understand things that were not actually said. Active listening gives you the ability to interpret emotional context. When we miss emotional context, we create a communications gap that we may fill with our own biases, judgements and experiences. That is the root of misunderstanding.

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” ― Alan Greenspan

Active listening is an emotional experience. It conveys connection and empathy, the foundation for trust and respect upon which relationships are built.  Everyone wants to be heard and respected, especially when they are under stress. In fact, research says the number one factor that determines whether employees trust their boss is how well their boss responds when they share problems at work. Empathy can make or break relationships.

The pandemic has put all of us under sustained levels of stress which may be bubbling just under the surface of every personal and professional conversation.

“Stress impacts comprehension,” says Dr. Vincent Covello, Director of the Center for Risk Communication in New York City. “Typically, people have more trouble hearing, understanding and remembering information.”

Stress can manifest itself in lack of listening and miscommunication. People who are “stressed out” may quickly become frustrated or angry.  They may misunderstand your intentions or even what they are trying to communicate.

Communicating effectively in stressful times requires self-awareness of how you are listening as well as increased levels of effort and attention to doing so. You need to listen – or hear – with your head and your heart.

Still, listening is only half of the equation. Stress reduces our ability to process information by as much as 80%. You also need to pay special attention to the messages you want to deliver and the way you deliver them. Here are three tips that can help you quickly increase your effectiveness:

  1. People want to know you care, before they care about what you know, and they judge your level of empathy fast. It only takes 30 seconds for someone to decide if you care and once that judgement is made it’s extremely difficult to change.

  2. Empathy builds trust, but 75% of trust is communicated non-verbally. Stress makes it easy for people to misinterpret non-verbal cues. Make sure your body is supporting your words. 

  3. Distraction and stress levels rise together. Be cognizant of the environment you choose for a conversation. Limit distractions and simplify messages to help people focus. We speak around 2.5 words per second, but our brain runs about 200,000 times faster – plenty of time to tune you out.

Dr. Covello’s research says active listening is a powerful stress reliever, “Given the opportunity to be heard, people often gain clarity and ultimately, resolution to what is bothering them and then can move forward – often with renewed energy and focus.”

The good news is that everyone is capable of active listening and empathy. They are skills you can develop and harness to become a more effective communicator under any circumstance.

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