Paul Butler | The benefits of empathetic listening

Paul Butler: Going the Extra Mile

Last Saturday evening at home, my wife and I had just settled in to watch a cozy movie — all snuggled up now that the temperatures have dropped to the chilliness of the mid-60s here in Santa Clarita — when there’s a heavy knock-knock-knock on our front door. We look at each other and ask, “Who could this be at this time of night?” It was only 9 p.m. but still, “Who could this possibly be?” 

As I opened the door, it was a rather distraught neighbor whose first comment as she moved past me was: “I need a hug off your wife.” Charming, I thought — what am I, chopped liver? Our late-night visitor initially couldn’t find her words between the emotional yelps of her anxiety as she sat on our couch. We wondered what on Earth could have happened to bring upon this level of distress.  

My wife provided the hugs and we just gently asked why she was so upset. Slowly, our neighbor began to calm herself and was able to audibly express what was on her heart. We came to understand a neighbor she’d known since she was a young child in the area in which she had grown up just found out she had a terminal disease that had aggressively progressed. It was evident from the emotion our present-day neighbor was very close to her neighbor from yesteryear.  

We just listened and then listened some more. Eventually our neighbor collected herself; thanked us for being there for her and left with a hearty appreciation of being able to disturb our serene setting last Saturday night. In and out within about 10 minutes. Not sure what we did but she seemed to feel better. 

This set me thinking about the workplace and the interplay between colleagues. In effect, our coworkers are our neighbors. Just how we rarely get to choose our neighbors, we don’t get to choose who we work with. Just how good neighbors can make a great place to live; good coworkers can make a great place to work. 

Upon reflection, all we exhibited on Saturday evening was empathic listening — we listened with the intent to understand. We didn’t try and fix, figure out, analyze or evaluate. We simply listened. I’ve noticed with empathic listening, one of two outcomes always arises: the person who has been heard will either say something along the lines of, “Thank you for listening,” or will ask, “Do you have any advice?” Either outcome builds the relationship. 

In the workplace, people sometimes say empathic listening takes too much time whereas, in fact, it’s the fastest form of communication. The moment we start to pretend to listen, selectively listen or listen with the intent of prescribing before diagnosing, all sorts of misunderstandings present themselves. 

Effective coworkers — be they supervisory or non-supervisory staff — are effective listeners. Organizations are utilizing human resources to produce business results and so we have to listen well to each other to achieve optimal outcomes. A colleague who is frustrated, angry, annoyed or even on the positive side, exuberant, is better equipped to move forward, if they feel understood.  

My one word of warning is to ensure that listening doesn’t fall into nasty gossip. See, if our neighbor had stopped by to bad-mouth another neighbor, I’d like to think we’d have played the part of the peacemaker rather than stirring up more bad mud. Likewise, when a colleague corners you onsite or online to vent about another coworker, I’d encourage you to have the character of mind to offer the benefit of the doubt and look for workable solutions rather than adding another brick to the wall. 

In summary, be a good listener — our neighborhoods and workplaces are better served when we seek first to understand and then be understood. It may not always be convenient but an opportunity to listen is a gift to build relationships with our workplace neighbors.  

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]. 

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