Lending an Ear for Empathy

Lisa smiling against a grey wall.

Listening can seem like a passive action, but there’s so much more to hearing someone’s story. Lisa explores how empathetic listening has the power to transform tough situations into safe spaces that foster creativity.

Written by Lisa Yuwen Hu, Design Research Team Lead, Honours Bachelor of Science, Psychology Research Specialist 

I have always been someone who likes to focus on actionable items that I can execute. As such, listening has always been something I considered to be ‘passive.’ However, my work at the Innovation Hub has revealed the power of empathetic listening. Now, it’s become my go-to skill that I rely on when I am in a tough interpersonal situation.  

Two heads connected with a wavy line

Feeling Grounded in Unexpected Situations 

For the Health and Wellness project this year that I led as a Design Research Team Lead, we conducted a series of feedback and co-creation sessions where we interviewed students for data collection. When we posed the questions we had prepared beforehand, participants weren’t responding the way we had hoped, and weren’t generating the discussions I was looking for. I was greatly unnerved by the situation. However, by using empathetic listening, I was able to stay calm in that stressful situation and be grounded in the present. Listening was an action that allowed me to assess the situation and determine my next course of action by understanding what was important to the students around me.  

Two hands holding, making a heart shape

Reducing Bias to Develop Trust 

As I began to closely listen to participants as they spoke, I noticed a hesitation in the group about sharing their ideas and discovered that the unexpectedness of the responses stemmed from my own personal biases on how students would or should respond. By grounding our discussion in exploring the thoughts that students were sharing rather than our own expectations, the students began to feel more comfortable sharing their ideas and trusting that it was a safe space to voice their perspectives. From there, ideas began to percolate at what felt like an exponential speed and made me realize how empathetic listening can play an important role in developing trust and safety, especially when interacting with equity-deserving populations.  

The Doors That Open with Empathetic Listening 

An open door with three people and a heart inside

Since students were feeling more comfortable and safer in sharing ideas, this shift in the vibe also allowed me to encourage folks to transform the small seeds of ideas that came out of the initially sparse discussion into complete, fruitful ideas. Empathetic listening allowed me to create discussion that I couldn’t even imagine because I abandoned my preconceived notions and got to the heart of what was important to folks. I generated excitement that fostered creativity because participants were feeling inspired by the positive energy in the room.  

Ear and speech bubble

Listening to Learn 

Empathetic listening is active and transformative. It creates safe spaces, inspires discussions, broadens perspectives, and allows design thinkers to form deep connections with their stakeholders that will lead them to identify and resolve challenges. 

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