“Heart wins over brain”

was an important finding of a junior coach during a design thinking master class, which I conducted last week. During the master class, the junior coach experienced different coaches, but one coach stood out. The coach with an empathetic approach reached and engaged the participants.

This experience has again shown me that despite technological advancements and modernization in all areas, human traits remain unchanged.

Technological progress constantly challenges our daily lives and the way we behave; it changes the way we work.

Routine business tasks are increasingly becoming automated. With the rise of artificial intelligence, systems can “sense” the environment, “understand” the context, and “learn” from experiences.

What does it mean for the future of work? Which professions will thrive, and which will fade out?  What are the potential implications for the needed skills in the future?

Leading market analysts, such as Gartner, McKinsey, and Deloitte, suggest that we should focus on our human skills, which are relatively hard to automate: creativity, empathy, social and emotional intelligence, ethical sensitivity, the ability to set context, and interdisciplinary thinking. Please see the end of the article for references.

Focused communication is the key to mutual understanding

Relationships are not only important in the private world. In the workplace, relationships are a major part of what makes a business work.

The ability to communicate with others – users, stakeholders and colleagues – is one of the keys to a successful project. Without good workplace relationships, employees are less likely to be able to create, share, and operate solutions that a company needs to succeed.

As a passionate designer and design thinking coach, I clearly see that innovation starts with understanding user needs. Only by understanding the true needs of our end users and customers can we think of new ways to solve their pain points and help them to overcome their challenges. The way to find this all out is to start talking to them.

The trick is to pay attention to every detail, every vibe, and every signal.

In the modern world, we have developed certain behaviors and habits, such as multitasking, autopilot mode, switching from one task to another in seconds, and so on, which protect us from cognitive overload. But, at the same time, these habits make it very difficult for us to stay focused and pay attention to just one conversation with all its aspects for a certain period of time. How can we stay focused on the conversation at hand?

Everybody can train empathy

Empathetic listening is a way of listening attentively to another person with emotional identification, compassion, feeling, and insight that improves mutual understanding and trust.

In my team, Frontrunner Lab in SAP Design, we have developed a set of exercises to increase empathy through listening. Martina Schuh, Johanna Wittig, and myself (Tatjana Borovikov) have worked out a concept and instructions for mind-changing activities.

The underlying principle is to seek to understand without interpretation.

The set of exercises we have developed can you help to:

  • gain awareness of how attentively you can listen.
  • observe what levels of communication are more accessible to you.
  • detect what information, facts, and feelings you can sense.
  • reflect on your own attention and behavior while listening and talking.
  • discover what empathy means for you.
  • experience how empathetic listening can improve relationships.
  • practice and see how you can change.

Every skill comes with practice

After we had developed the format for experiencing and training empathy, we conducted several sessions at TEDxHeidelberg and at SAP UX DAY 2018 at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The response was unanimous appreciation for the format and the feedback was overwhelming positive. Here are some quotes from our participants:

“The activity opened my eyes on the importance of attentive listening and paying attention”

“I caught myself not listening, but looking for answers…”

“It is hard to not to interpret and not interrupt…”

“While concentrating on the speaker I discovered, so many small gestures and small movements in the face that accentuate what was said”

“I would love to bring this exercise to my team!”

“I want to bring this activity to my organization since the topic is very important. I love your materials can I have them? ”

And we said sure!…

Please use the instructions! Try out the exercises and give us your feedback.
Tell us what you discover while being a talker or a listener, what part of the exercise was most challenging, and where you experienced an “aha”-moment.

So, here are the instructions.

Listening to voice and surroundings

During this exercise, you experience how much you can understand through auditory input. This part of empathetic listening becomes increasingly important the more we work in virtual environments.

  1. Find a partner and decide who talks and who listens.
  2. As the listening partner, focus only on auditory input: the voice of the talking partner, the sounds in the environment, etc. Block out input from other senses as much as possible; for example, consider covering your eyes to block visual input. Listen to the talking partner for three minutes. Focus on all aspects: facts, mood, feelings. Be attentive to every detail.
  3. As the talking partner, talk about your daily job or a hobby for three minutes. You can talk about anything, maybe you tell your partner:
    • What is your job title?
    • What are your tasks and responsibilities?
    • What excites you about your job or hobby?
  4. After three minutes, stop and reflect. Use the debriefing instructions

Reflect

Talking partner (3 minutes):

  • How did you perceive the experience?
  • How do you know that your listening partner paid attention?
  • As the person speaking, describe how this experience is different from other conversations.

Listening partner (3 minutes):

  • Describe the auditory input.
  • Were you able to concentrate on your partner for the entire three minutes?
  • Could you notice your partner’s feelings?
  • As the person listening, describe how this experience is different from other conversations.

Listening to body language

During this exercise, you experience how much you can understand through visual input. This part of empathetic listening constantly happens – unconsciously, we sense feelings and emotions, but often push them aside and focus on facts. In this exercise, we remove the facts, and focus on a different part of the conversation (body language, especially facial expressions).

  1. Find a partner and decide who talks and who listens.
  2. As the listening partner, focus only on visual input, such as gestures and facial expressions. Block input from other senses as much as possible; for example, consider covering your ears to block auditory input. Pay attention to the talking partner for three minutes. Focus on all aspects: facts, mood, feelings. Be attentive to every detail.
  3. The talking partner takes three minutes to talk about his or her favorite book, movie, sports, or art.
  4. After three minutes, stop and reflect. Use the debriefing instructions.

Reflect

Talking partner (3 minutes):

  • How did you perceive the experience?
  • How do you know that your listening partner paid attention?

Listening partner (3minutes):

  • Describe the visual input.
  • Was your partner excited about something?
  • Could you sense your partner’s feelings?
  • As the person listening, describe how this experience is different from other conversations.

Listening to silence

“You cannot not communicate” (Paul Watzlawick).

How much can you communicate without words? In this exercise, you will experience what you can convey without speaking.

  1. Find a partner and decide who talks and who listens.
  2. The talking partner cannot use words, be they spoken or written. The talking partner takes three minutes to convey an idea or a concept to the listening partner.
  3. As the listening partner, focus only on gestures and facial expressions of the talking partner and try to understand the message.
  4. After three minutes, stop and reflect. Use the debriefing instructions.

Reflect

Talking partner (3 minutes):

  • How did you perceive the experience?
  • How do you know that your listening partner paid attention?

Listening partner (3 minutes):

  • Describe the input
  • Could you sense your partner’s feelings?
  • Do you know what the talking partner wanted to communicate?

Looking forward to your feedback and comments.

Happy empathetic listening!

References:

Agarwal, Dimple, et al. “AI, Robotics, and Automation: Put Humans in the Loop.” Deloitte Insights, Deloitte, March 28, 2018, www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends/2018/ai-robotics-intelligent-machines.html.

Gartner Says By 2020, Artificial Intelligence Will Create More Jobs Than It Eliminates.” Press release. Gartner, Inc., December 13, 2017, www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3837763.

Manyika, James, et al. Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation. McKinsey Global Institute, December 2017, www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-organizations-and-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages.

Special thank to James Vernon Edenstrom for editing this article.

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  • Esther Blankenship   5 days ago

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Would love to try this exercise!