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Empathy skills

For relationships, communications, complaints, customer retention, conflict and levels of listening types

Empathy and trust are a platform for effective understanding, communication and relationships. Empathy and trust are essential to develop solutions, win and retain business, and avoiding or diffusing conflict. Empathy and trust are essential for handling complaints and retaining customers. These days we need to be more effective communicators to be successful in business - and in life. The 'steps of the sale', persuasion, closing techniques, features and benefits do not build rapport or relationships - empathy, trust, understanding and sympathetic communications do. One-sided persuasion is not sustainable and is often insulting, especially when handling complaints. Trust and empathy are far more important in achieving and sustaining successful personal and business relationships.

A certain legacy of the days of the hard-sell is that many consumers and business people are more reluctant to expose themselves to situations where they may be asked to make a decision. This places extra pressure on the process of arriving at a deal, and very special skills are now needed to manage the situations in which business is done.

Most modern gurus in the areas of communications, management and self-development refer in one way or another to the importance of empathy - really understanding the pther person's position and feelings. Being able to 'step back', and achieve a detachment from our own emotions, is essential for effective, constructive relationships.

Whether for selling, customer retention, handling complaints, diffusing conflict, empathy helps.


Part of the 'empathy process' is establishing trust and rapport. Creating trust and rapport helps us to have sensible 'adult' discussions (see Transational Analysis, which is another useful model for understanding more about empathy).

Establishing trust is about listening and understanding - not necessarily agreeing (which is different) - to the other person. Listening without judging.

A useful focus to aim for when listening to another person is to try to understand how the other person feels, and to discover what they want to achieve.

Dr Stephen Covey (of 'The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People'® fame) is one of many modern advocates who urge us to strive deeply to understand the other person's point of view.

Sharon Drew Morgen's Buying Facilitation concept is another signpost towards this more open, modern, collaborative approach (and it is not retricted to buying and selling).

Nudge theory - a powerful change-management concept which emerged in the 2000s - is similarly built on a solid ethical philosophy.

It is difficult and rarely appropriate to try to persuade another person to do what we want; instead we must understand what the other person wants, and then try help them to achieve it, which often includes helping them to see the way to do it (which is central to Sharon Drew Morgen's approach).

We must work with people collaboratively, to enable them to see what they want, and then help tem to see the ways achieve it.

The act of doing all this establishes trust.



Of all the communications skills, listening is arguably the one which makes the biggest difference.

The most brilliant and effective speaker utlimately comes undone if he/she fails to listen properly.

Listening does not come naturally to most people, so we need to work hard at it; to stop ourselves 'jumping in' and giving our opinions.

Mostly, people don't listen - they just take turns to speak - we all tend to be more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really listening and understanding others.

This is ironinic since we all like to be listened to and understood. Covey says rightly that when we are understood we feel affirmed and validated.

He coined the expression: 'Seek first to understand, and then to be understood', which serves as a constant reminder for the need to listen to the other person before you can expect them to listen to you.


Levels of listening - 'effective listening'

There are different types of listening. Typically they are presented as levels of listening.

Various people have constructed listening models. Below is an attempt to encompass and extend good current listening theory in an accessible and concise way. Bear in mind that listening is rarely confined merely to words. Sometimes what you are listening to will include other sounds or intonation or verbal/emotional noises. Sometimes listening involves noticing a silence or a pause - nothing - 'dead air' as it's known in broadcasting. You might instead be listening to a musical performance, or an engine noise, or a crowded meeting, for the purpose of understanding and assessing what is actually happening or being said. Also, listening in its fullest sense, as you will see below, ultimately includes many non-verbal and non-audible factors, such as body language, facial expressions, reactions of others, cultural elements, and the reactions of the speaker and the listeners to each other.

In summary first:

  1. passive/not listening - noise in background - ignoring
  2. pretend listening - also called 'responsive listening' - using stock nods and smiles and uhum, yes, of course, etc.
  3. biased/projective listening - 'selective listening' and intentionally disregarding/dismissing the other person's views
  4. misunderstood listening - unconsciously overlaying your own interpretations and making things fit when they don't
  5. attentive listening - personally-driven fact gathering and analysis often with manipulation of the other person
  6. active listening - understanding feelings and gathering facts for largely selfish purposes
  7. empathic listening - understanding and checking facts and feelings, usually to listener's personal agenda
  8. facilitative listening - listening, understanding fully, and helping, with the other person's needs uppermost

Full version:

Levels and types of listening


Passive Listening or Not Listening

Noise in the background - you are not concentrating on the sounds at all and nothing is registering with you. Ignoring would be another way to describe this type of listening. There is nothing wrong with passive listening if it's truly not important, but passive listening - which we might more aptly call Not Listening - is obviously daft and can be downright dangerous if the communications are important.


Pretend Listening

You are not concentrating and will not remember anything because you are actually daydreaming or being distracted by something else even though you will occasionally nod or agree using 'stock' safe replies. This is a common type of listening that grown-ups do with children. This level of listening is called Responsive Listening in some other models, although Pretend Listening is arguably a more apt term, since the word 'responsive' suggests a much higher level of care in the listener, and Pretend Listening reflects that there is an element of deceit on the part of the listener towards the speaker. You will generally know when you are Pretend Listening because the speaker will see that glazed look in your eyes and say firmly something like, "Will you please Listen to me. I'm talking to you!" Especially if the speaker is a small child.


Biased Listening or Projective Listening

You are listening and taking in a certain amount of information, but because you already have such firm opposing or different views, or a resistance to the speaker, you are not allowing anything that is said or any noises made to influence your attitude and level of knowledge and understanding. You are projecting your position onto the speaker and the words. You would do this typically because you are under pressure or very defensive. You would normally be aware that you are doing this, which is a big difference between the next level and this one. This third level of listening is also called Selective Listening in some other models.


Misunderstood Listening

You have an interest and perhaps some flexibility in respect of the words spoken and your reactions to them, but because you are not thinking objectively and purely you are putting your own interpretation on what you are hearing - making the words fit what you expect or want them to fit. This is a type of projective listening like level three above, but you will not normally be aware that you are doing it until it is pointed out to you. This is a type of listening that is prone to big risks because if you are not made aware of your failings you will leave the discussion under a very wrong impression of the facts and the feelings of the other person. It's a deluded form of listening. Arrogant people like politicians and company directors who surround themselves with agreeable accomplices can fall into seriously ingrained habits of Misunderstood Listening.


Attentive 'Data-Only' Listening

You listen only to the content, and fail to receive all the non-verbal sounds and signals, such as tone of voice, facial expression, reaction of speaker to your own listening and reactions. This is fine when the purpose of the communication is merely to gain/convey cold facts and figures, but it is very inadequate for other communications requiring an assessment of feelings and motives, and the circumstances underneath the superficial words or sounds. Attentive Listening is a higher level of listening than Misunderstood Listening because it can gather reliable facts, but it fails to gather and suitably respond to emotions and feelings, and the situation of the other person, which is especially risky if the other person's position is potentially troublesome. This is a common form of listening among 'push and persuade' sales people. Attentive Data-Only Listening is typically driven by a strong personal results motive. It can be highly manipulative and forceful. This type of listening wins battles and loses wars - i.e., it can achieve short-term gains, but tends to wreck chances of building anything constructive and sustainable.


Active Listening

This is listening to words, intonation, and observing body language and facial expressions, and giving feedback - but critically this type of listening is empty of two-way emotional involvement, or empathy. There is no transmitted sympathy or identification with the other persons feelings and emotional needs. This listening gathers facts and to a limited extent feelings too, but importantly the listener does not incorporate the feelings into reactions. This can be due to the listener being limited by policy or rules, or by personal insecurity, selfishness, or emotional immaturity. Active listening often includes a manipulative motive or tactics, which are certainly not present in the empathic level next and higher, and which is a simple way to differentiate between Active and Empathic listening.


Empathic Listening or Empathetic Listening

You are listening with full attention to the sounds, and all other relevant signals, including:

  • tone of voice
  • other verbal aspects - e.g., pace, volume, breathlessness, flow, style, emphasis
  • facial expression
  • body language
  • cultural or ethnic or other aspects of the person which would affect the way their communications and signals are affecting you
  • feeling - not contained in a single sense - this requires you to have an overall collective appreciation through all relevant senses (taste is perhaps the only sense not employed here) of how the other person is feeling
  • you able to see and feel the situation from the other person's position

You are also reacting and giving feedback and checking understanding with the speaker. You will be summarising and probably taking notes and agreeing the notes too if it's an important discussion. You will be honest in expressing disagreement but at the same time expressing genuine understanding, which hopefully (if your listening empathy is of a decent standard) will keep emotions civilized and emotionally under control even for very difficult discussions. You will be instinctively or consciously bringing elements of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and  Transactional Analysis into the exchange. It will also be possible (for one who knows) to interpret the exchange from the perspective of having improved the relationship and mutual awareness in terms of the Johari Window concept.


Facilitative Listening

This goes beyond even empathic listening because it implies and requires that you are able to extend an especially helpful approach to the other person or people. This element is not necessarily present in empathic listening. Another crucial difference is the capability to interpret the cognisance - self-awareness - of the speaker, and the extent to which you are hearing and observing genuine 'adult' sounds and signals (as distinct from emotionally skewed outputs), and to weigh the consequences of the other person's behaviour even if the other person cannot. In this respect you are acting rather like a protector or guardian, in the event that the other person is not being true to themselves. Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis theory comes close to explaining the aspects of mood and 'game-playing' which many people exhibit a lot unconsciously, and which can be very difficult notice using only the aims of and skills within empathic listening. This does not mean that you are making decisions or recommendations for the other person - it means you are exercising caution on their behalf, which is vital if you are in a position of responsibility or influence towards them. Facilitative Listening also requires that you have thought and prepared very carefully about what you will ask and how you will respond, even if you pause to think and prepare your responses during the exchange. Many people do not give themselves adequate pause for thought when listening and responding at an empathic level. Facilitative listening contains a strong additional element of being interested in helping the other person see and understand their options and choices. It's a powerful thing. Facilitative Listening is not generally possible if the circumstances (for example organisational rules and policy, matters of law, emergency, etc) demand a faster resolution and offer little or no leeway for extending help. There is a suggestion of transcendence and self-actualization - as described in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs theory - within the approach to Facilitative Listening. It is devoid of any selfish personal motive, other than to extend help, rather than achieve any sort of normal material gain. The other person's interests are at the forefront, which cannot truthfully be said of any of the preceding levels of listening. Facilitative Listening is not an age or money-related capability. It is an attitude of mind.

©Alan Chapman 2009-11

See also the summary and interpretation of Mehrabian's communications theory, which considers communications from the standpoint of the 'receiver' of communications, and it's implications for the 'sender' of communications.

See Sharon Drew Morgen's theory of Buying Facilitation, which is adaptable beyond selling and business, and which relates strongly to, and has amongst other significant influences, helped to inspire the concept of Facilitative Listening.

Handling complaints and customer retention in organizations

The principle of ownership is central to complaints handling: if you receive a complaint or query you continue to own it until it is resolved - even if you escalate it or delegate it - which means that you must always follow-up and check on progress and eventually resolution and satisfaction.

The measurement and monitoring of complaints, from receipt to resolution is also vital: the organisation must have suitable systems and commitment to do this, especially from the very top.

There is a difference between 'understanding' someone and 'agreeing' with them: everyone in the organisation should have the training, encouragement and ability, to understand and to convey that they understand - to see the reality of the other person's position and feelings - whether they are right or wrong - and should have the training and authority to 'agree' where appropriate, which has implications for authorization levels and compensation offerings.

Seek complaints and feedback: the organisation should welcome complaints and should encourage staff to ask for them - complaints enable quality improvement and ultimately improve relations with customers (the vast majority of customers are more loyal after the complaint is resolved satisfactorily than they were before the complaint arose).

Incidentally, from a staff-selection perspective, people with strong right basal brain quadrant - which produces intuition and empathy - make good complaint receivers. Strong left basal enables good processing and follow-up. Strong right frontal enables good creative problem-solving. (See the Benziger page.)

Use the 'over-compensation' principle: always look after complaining customers extremely well - generally regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Organisations often begrudge compensating complaining customers, which is completely illogical, because complaints are relatively rare and the real cost of compensation is relatively inexpensive, and yet the benefits from customer satisfaction, increased loyalty and positive word-of-mouth, are enormous by comparison.


Trust and rapport training: improve customer service

Here are some pointers as to how you can develop empathy skills for customer service staff, especially in call-centres, and situations where customer retention is a strong priority.

Use a training exercise to flush out all the 'wrong' ways to handle these customer situations - it's often much easier for a group to identify (via role play and/or syndicates) wrong ways, and then make sure they avoid them. Customers resist strongly being persuaded against their urge to contact and terminate a contract - the persuasive approach immediately polarises customer service representative and customer; the resulting emotional issue then dominates, removing any chance to save the customer. All initial effort must be to establish rapport and understanding - without the rapport nothing can be done.

Use a training exercise to identify rapport-establishing phrases, questions, and then role-play to demonstrate, practice and demonstrate suitable tone - style must be highly sympathetic and interested (the tendency is for tone to be confrontational, competitive, challenging, etc, which makes matters worse). Demonstrate also how it can take several minutes to do this - sometimes several conversations. Through role-play, observe how easy it is to shatter rapport by moving into persuasive mode. Stay 'with' the customer - understand (not necessarily the same as agreeing) and sympathise, allowing the discussion to develop, rather than present an opposing proposition.

Use a training exercise to identify suitable empathic information-gathering questions - what do we need to know in order to help, how to ask for this information, and how to position the need to ask questions in the first place, once initial rapport has been established.

Use a training exercise to identify approaches, and ' ready-made' phrases, to view customers' situations objectively with the customers - 'let's look at this together and see what the options are...' - rather than the tendency to go head-to-head and counter the customer's position with superior argument, justification, or worse still implied or direct threat, such as penalties, etc. (It's easy to fall into the confrontation trap because so much sales training and experience is based on the power of persuasion, which is in itself highly confrontational in defensive scenarios.)

The secret to customer retention is the relationship in the first few seconds - customers are far more likely to rethink and stay if they 'like' the person on the other end of the phone. Certainly a customer will not begin to reconsider if they 'dislike' the other person - instead they become empowered to accelerate and reinforce withdrawal from the moment they feel the slightest bit challenged or opposed.

Role-play sympathetic phrases and tone for this scenario: you meet a friend in the street and learn from them that they have suffered an upsetting experience - listen for the natural empathy and sympathy - there is no instinct here to persuade the friend to 'get a grip' or 'snap out of it' - the natural sympathetic response is the basis of building trust and empathy and rapport.

Trust, rapport, empathy and understanding are powerful relationship-builders, and form the bedrock of sustainable business and careers.

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