Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Listening with Empathy in Organizational Communication

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Listening with Empathy in Organizational Communication

Article excerpt


Listening and empathy are widely considered marks of competent communicators and leaders. Although overshadowed by speaking, listening and person-focused organizations that practice empathy are linked to positive organizational cultures. In this essay, I survey fifty years of organizational communication research history related to the nexus of listening and empathy: empathic listening. I argue that organizational scholars should escalate their groundbreaking work on empathic listening by rejoining the growing theoretical discussion and research currently underway.

Keywords: listening, empathy, empathic listening, organization

In a brief review of a history of the field of organizational communication, Cheney (2007) describes a discipline that emerged in the business realm in the mid-1900s primarily focused on workplace productivity. This emphasis shifted in the 1980s with a move to include broader theoretical and epistemological standpoints and diverse organizational issues. At present, organizational communication scholars are increasingly concerned with engaging real world problems with their studies, particularly in the pursuit of more socially just and ethical ways of organizational life. In these contexts, listening and emotional openness are required both as a standpoint of engagement with organizational communication practices and as research ends in and of themselves (Cheney, 2007). In other words, since empathy and listening are widely considered by general society marks of a "good" communicators, and "research on social support demonstrates listening as one of the most helpful behaviors in times of distress... managing conflict, promoting intimacy, succeeding as a leader, and creating a client-centered business model" (Bodie, 2012, p. 120), organizational communication scholars should understand how the function and practice of empathie listening impacts organizational development.

Listening is often overshadowed by speaking in communication research and organizational research in particular. For example, when comparing a search of EbscoHost's "Communication and Mass Media Complete" (CMMC) database1 in December 2014 for articles that contained "listening" compared to articles that contained "speaking," three times as many articles were found for speaking as for listening. This statistic held when comparing only articles that included reference to "organization" as well. Yet, listening has proven an important skill that impacts organizational life, including aspects such as job performance and upward mobility (Sypher, Bostrom, & Seibert, 1989).

Researchers over the past three decades have consistently called for greater focus on listening in the organizational context. In the 1980s, Sypher et al. (1989, p. 295) argued that "few investigations have linked listening to other communication related skills, and almost no studies demonstrate those relationships in perhaps the most obvious and relevant context - the organization." According to Brownell (2008), not much changed in the twenty years following, with research rarely considering how listening impacts organizational communication, performance, or development. Bodie (2012, p. 120) indicated that "most past research.. .only leads to informed speculations about the role of listening within organizations" but that "research is needed to detail those specific elements of listening most important for fostering positive organizational relationships and a supportive organizational climate." Although listening is linked to positive organizational cultures, frequent calls for research seem to remain unanswered in organizational communication research.

Empathy is also considered a vital trait of communication and leadership in any organization. Awareness of others' needs, emotional intelligence, and person-focused organizations that practice empathy are positively related to job performance and positive organizational cultures (Gentry, Weber, & Sandri, 2007). …

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