3 Lessons to Master the Art of Listening Empathically

Think of someone you consider to be a really good listener. How do you FEEL about this person?

We LOVE good listeners because they give us the chance to talk about what we love more than anything in the world: ourselves. We find them interesting and magnetic because they pay attention to us.

Most of us consider ourselves to be pretty good listeners. But when was the last time you deliberately practiced your listening skills? And have you ever sought out feedback on your listening performance? 

Listening is just like any other skill. Unless we’re intentional about practicing, we get a lot of experience but we don’t become masters of that skill. 

So, what do master listeners do to separate them from “good” listeners? To answer this question, we’ll explore how Mary Barra, CEO and chairman of General Motors, deliberately practices and hones her listening skills.

Mary Barra: Master Listener

After spending 35 years in various roles at GM — everything from executive assistant to communications to human resources — Mary Barra took over as the first female CEO in 2014. 

Early in her career, mentors ingrained in Barra the importance of understanding and appealing to both the intellectual and emotional side of her team. In addition to logical reasoning, her mentors advised, you have to be attuned to what people really care about.

This advice shows up in her leadership style, where Barra is praised for creating an inclusive environment where employees feel that they can voice their opinions. Barra’s coworkers and mentees recognize and appreciate her listening skills and, as a result, her approachability.

For example, Barra’s teams report that she asks for and remains silent to listen to every opinion in the room and, once she receives diverse input, then she gauges the efficacy of all ideas. Only then does she respond.

Days after Barra was appointed the CEO position, she faced a full-blown crisis. GM recalled over 2.6 million cars for a faulty ignition switch problem that resulted in 124 deaths and was the subject of a government investigation.

Barra opted not to respond to the crisis in the traditional GM manner, which tended to minimize the importance of the problem, fight any associated lawsuits, and deflect media assertions. Instead, Barra used the crisis as an opportunity to change what she perceived to be a cultural problem within the company.

At a town hall meeting, she told employees that she never wanted them to forget what had happened. She asked them to keep “this painful experience permanently in our collective memories.”

Barra instructed the GM family to listen to what customers were saying and asked them to empathize with the families of the 124 individuals that lost their lives.

Eventually, GM settled with the U.S. Justice Department and paid a $900 million dollar fine. By settling, they attended to what people needed and what mattered most to them:  that GM acknowledged its role in the deaths of their loved ones and took responsibility for what led to those deaths!

What lessons can we glean from Mary Barra’s story? What makes Barra a master listener?

Lesson 1: Be attuned to what people care about.

Using advice from early in her career, Barra created a culture of inclusion where everyone on her team felt like their voice was heard and that their opinions matter.

Don’t simply listen to what people say. Listen BEYOND what is said to how people feel and what really matters to them as a result. Create the opportunity for others to feel heard in your presence — how might you design this concept into your next meeting or conversation?

Lesson 2: Be silent. 

Imagine the master skills that Barra and the GM team had to use when listening to the families affected by this crisis. Listening empathically requires that you create space into which another person can speak — which means you have to be silent. 

Stretching the silence creates pauses or “space” in the conversation, giving others time to think, dig deeper, process information and consider new possibilities when they respond to you. 

Stop listening in order to respond or to fill the silence. Instead, start stretching the silence to hold space for others.

Lesson 3: Listen for clues to shape a possible future solution, but do not move to try to solve while you should be listening. 

Once Barra understood what really mattered to people, she was able to coordinate an appropriate response and solution that went against the typical GM way of solving issues like the ignition switch crisis. 

When you’re trying to listen like a master, it’s critical that you create and hold space for the other person — the speaker — to externally process and dig deeper. Jumping to fixing or providing solutions too quickly can leave the other person feeling silenced when you should be the quiet one. 

I challenge you to listen empathically (at 3 levels!) with your colleagues, friends and family. Become the person that others think of when they’re asked to think of a great listener…and how much they love that person!