Podcast: Teaching Empathetic Listening to College Students

April 19, 2024
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Some time ago, I received a packet from Lisa Waite, a professor in communication studies at Kent State University, who teaches a course titled Business and Professional Communication.

I met Lisa after she attended our Listen Like a Leader class, and subsequently, was trained to teach that same material.

Lisa spoke to me about the impact our class had on her life in and out of the classroom. We both felt strongly that we need to get this type of curriculum – that of empathetic listening as the basis for communication – into our schools and universities.

The packet Lisa sent me contained letters from her students. In her own note, she explained that she has been showing her class my TEDx on the first day of class and a number of the students were moved to write me a letter with their reflections. Here are a few quotes:

"Thank you for showing society how people-centered leadership can influence positively on the workplace and I hope one day I can be part of one."

"I know from my experience, work always shaped the way my attitude would be for that day and I was not nice to the people around me because of that."

"I feel that we live in a society that grooms kids to go through school and work till you die. It is very uplifting to hear of someone who wants someone to come to work, be at work, and leave work smiling."

"Knowing that there is a company in this world that not only cares for their employees, but truly values their family, self-being and hard work, is comforting. Working for a company that makes you want to come into work every day and allows you to come home feeling happy and valued is something I will always strive for."

"When I move up to a management or leadership position in life, I can keep this leadership style in the back of my head so that I can properly lead a team of employees in a humane nature."

I was profoundly moved by their words. I took the packet to our communications team and asked if they would interview Lisa about her experiences in integrating our empathetic listening training into her classwork at Kent State.

From case studies at Harvard Business School to high school students in Texas, our message of Truly Human Leadership is slowly making a difference in education and moving the needle in how we train our business leaders. I’m very proud of the impact we have had and will continue to make.

Lisa shares how the use of empathetic listening affected her teaching and the impact it has had on the lives of her students on this episode of our podcast.




Brent Stewart: We've talked about how many of the principles of leadership that we try to teach internally at Barry-Wehmiller and try to preach externally through channels like this podcast have been incorporated into educational systems. Harvard Business School is teaching a case study on Barry-Wehmiller. Our communication skills or empathetic listening curriculum is being used in high schools in Texas.

On this episode, we'd like to introduce you to Lisa Waite, a professor at Kent State University, who uses some of our communication skills curriculum in her Business and Professional Communications course. She also shows her class that TEDx talk by our CEO, Bob Chapman, which is actually featured on the first episode of our podcast, if you like to go back and listen for reference. Lisa will talk about how she came upon Barry-Wehmiller and she'll tell you about a series of letters she recently sent Bob Chapman, but she'll also talk about how empathetic listening is making a difference in the lives of her students at Kent State and how it is helping to shape a different way of thinking in the minds of these future leaders. So, here's Lisa Waite.

Lisa Waite: I am a full-time resident faculty at Kent State University. I teach communication studies with a key focus on organizational communication and culture. This August, I started my 30th year in education and my 28th year as a consultant. I also have a communication and leadership consultancy where I work with organizations across North America to build world-class teams and their cultures and really polish their communication skills. So, as much as I just adore my traditional students in that population, I always find such rich value and connections with my adult learners as well.

I learned about this communication skills training course from a dear friend of mine who works for one of the Barry-Wehmiller organizations. And she was telling me about this course that she took recently and went on and on about this new CEO and this new organization she was working with. And she said, "As a communication researcher and communication specialist, Lisa, I think you might be interested in taking this course," because she referred to it as life changing. And I'll be honest with you, I said, "Yeah, right." Because, Brent, right, as you know, we have all been to seminars and workshops and such, and as much as they offer a lot of great lessons and some relevant value, up to that point I had yet to experience any that I would've called life changing.

So, I took the course and guess what? It was life changing for me. It truly was. And she told me, she reminded me that it's better to eat crow while it's still warm. So, here's how it was life changing. I came home and it wasn't an overnight process, but in the course of a year and 18 months, by applying the lessons, I became a better teacher, a better consultant, a better mother, a better spouse. I ended up coming out and taking some other really great experiences that Barry-Wehmiller Corporate University offers. And it was in either the initial course, or professor training, or one of the experiences where I ended up having a conversation with Bob and we agreed that we have to somehow get this into the schools, Brent. And at the time, I didn't know exactly how I was going to do this, but I knew that I had to do this. It was that very visceral, a calling, if you will. So I began, in small ways, weaving some of the content into my own lessons and my own illustrations. And this brings us to the course that you reference.

So, for the listeners, I'll explain a little bit of what brings us together today. One of the courses that I teach is titled Business and Professional Communication. This prepares students to master a variety of communication skills, we look at interpersonal dynamics and we talk about how to build world-class teams, naturally, collaboration. And I spend a lot of time and insight in talking about leadership and listening. But something, as a scholar, as an educator, that I find very frustrating: in communication textbooks the topics of empathy and listening are usually buried somewhere in the middle or at the end of the textbook. And there's just so much in my world that's really wrong with that.

So, what I do is I'm very intentional in drawing out those topics in the early minutes of the course. On day one, we begin the course talking about the critical nature and importance of empathy and listening. And as part of that, I have a tradition the last couple of years since that TED Talk was released, I play Bob's message and that becomes the foundation that supports and reinforces all of the other course content. It's one metric that I use. And when you think about architecture, if we think about the architecture of a pyramid, for example, the base is the most broad, and that's what we're going to stack everything else on top of.

When I'm getting ready to show Bob's message as a preview to that, I explain to students that this journey you're about to embark on and to learn about over the course of the next 15 weeks, beginning with this message from Bob Chapman, this is not in any way what I would call kumbaya stuff, or fluff, or lip service, that this is an actual form of leadership. And what I am always amazed at, Brent, is the student's strong reaction. And you have to consider the demographics of this population. The average age is 18 to 21 years old. Now, certainly we have some older students who are coming back to finish their degrees, my adult learners, but one of the honor students came forward and said, "I am just amazed and, quite frankly, blown away that there is someone out there, a leader like this."

And so many of the students right away often say, "Can I work for him? I want to work for that organization." Truly, and it does exist. So she said, "Would you provide me with his address?" And I said, "Well, absolutely. I'm sure he would be very touched by your expression and sentiments." Well, then students started lining up as class was over and, "Can I write? May I write?" So I said, "Absolutely." And I took all their letters and there were, my goodness, many of them, and put them in an envelope and off they went.

Brent: Let's pause for a second. I want to read some excerpts from some of the letters that Lisa's students sent to Bob Chapman. And keep in mind these are all responses to watching his TEDx talk, and I've edited these comments just for the sake of brevity, but we'll start off with one from Bailey. And she said, "I was so intrigued by the points that you made. They were so simple, but made so much sense in our world today. Managing or running a business is not about the shareholders, but instead inviting people in where it is our job to develop them and take responsibility of their life and the impact they will make by the way we lead them."

Often the students reference their family, relating to their family and their work and their jobs and how they came home. Lauren said, "While watching and listening to how many people truly do not feel appreciated at their job, I find this a sad reality. In my previous jobs I felt that way at times and ended up leaving. My dad used to work for the housing authority and they took full advantage of him and did not care how he was feeling or what his thoughts were, so he ended up leaving as well after 23 years. When people are around others who trust them and want to hear them out and engage in ideas and problem solving, this creates a dynamic of happier people. In my workplace, I see people who get shut down at work every day and get treated as if they were nothing at all. It takes a lot for people who are in charge to realize they should not just be barking orders and thinking they're the only one who is right."

Taylor said, "I think they need to feel valued as a universal feeling that everyone can relate to. I also think that as much as we may not want to admit it, our work lives carry into other aspects of our lives like friends and family. If you aren't happy at work, you're most likely coming home frustrated and ready to take out that frustration on the people around you. I thought about my dad the entire time you spoke of this. He does not feel valued and appreciated at his job and comes home frustrated and worn out most days. I think the kind of work environment you offer to provide is very inspiring for college students like myself, who are wondering what in the world we have to look forward to when we see our parents struggling in the jobs they hate."

And then other students talked about their own work experiences. Kaylee said, "I have been in the service industry and have frequently felt my efforts go unnoticed and very much unappreciated. I make efforts to go above and beyond with customer service and receive no recognition. I have recently received a promotion to be a store marketer in the same company. When taking on this role, I have committed to showing the employees that they matter. I have found through my own experience that when I felt acknowledged and appreciated, I performed better in the workplace. One thing that really stood out for me was when you stated, 'We have been paying people for their hands for years, and they would've given us our heads and hearts for free if we would just known how to ask them.' I love this quote, because leadership is a quality, and if you recognize people in the workplace, they will go above and beyond for your organization. It amazes me that when you treat someone with respect and listen to their views, it changes the whole person. I plan to practice what you preach in the workforce every day."

And Anthony said, "One of the major things that stood out to me in your TED Talk was about value and appreciation. One thought you expressed that spoke to me was that you can do 10 things right and then do one little thing wrong and the wrong becomes the focus. I can share an example of that happened to be at my current Finish Line store. I met my sales goal every day last week, and my supervisor focused on some minor issue that really did not matter. Another point that you made in your TED Talk that stood out was about recognition. I've been recognized at a prior Finish Line store once for doing a good job. We were $225,000 up on the year-end sales. Our manager gave each one of us a can of shoe protectant. It was a good feeling to be appreciated."

And Elijah said, "I've always felt in my work experience a lack of significant and value to the organization as a whole. It's funny, a lot of jobs that I have worked where I punched the clock, we were always given a number and that to me felt like I was just another number in the system. Even when I ventured into corporate, my contributions were measured by a metric and performance. If I wasn't selling anything, I didn't matter and could be easily replaced."

And I like to end reading some excerpts from these letters with a comment from Sarah and she said, "I feel like this semester I am being reminded often of my call to love people. This speech of yours is an instance of that. Everything we do leaves a mark on people. We as a society desperately need to never lose sight of that concept of love and kindness." Those are just some of the things that Lisa's students said after watching Bob Chapman's TEDx talk. And so now we'll hear more from Lisa about her experiences with the students in her classes.

Lisa: Something that's really interesting about their reaction, or as part of their reaction, to Bob's message is this, almost every student, Brent, in my class has told me, not just this class, but every time I teach the course and they see this. And let me just pause for a moment. I also share this a good deal in a number of my corporate training experiences. And what the students and my clients express is that, "I've never learned to really have these kinds of conversations." Especially the students, "I never really learned about emotions or how to talk so openly about failure." And that piqued my curiosity. And I wanted to dig in to some of the research. And there are some very credible studies out there.

Steven Beebe and Joseph DeVito and others talk about the fact that these students in this generation are using technology for virtually everything. So, for many of them, very hard face-to-face conversations that include listening and empathy are, they find it very awkward and intense. But what we're finding is it's not their fault, but it is their circumstance. Let me say that again. It's not their fault, but it is their circumstance, because as much as technology gives us more ways to communicate, it also creates more ways that we're misunderstood. And that frames the first part of the lesson.

Bob talks about this awesome and profound responsibility when we are called to be leaders and how we are entrusted with the lives of others. And I talk about role models and who are we considering and looking to as role models. I was blessed to have great parents, but I tell my students and my clients that just as it can be dangerous to parent as you were parented, or teach as you were taught, it can be very dangerous to lead as you were led. And Bob talks a lot about this in his book, Everybody Matters. There are a lot of bad leaders out there, Brent, but my experience is, most of these are very good people. They just have, unfortunately, not had the role models or the privilege and the opportunity to work for caring leaders.

So, when we watch Bob's talk, I pause and we engage in a lot of wonderful conversation. But one of the lessons that I try to impart is, as a future leader, how do you want to speak to the world and how do you want the world to know you. And also, to point out as Bob does, and as I learned in my Barry-Wehmiller course, being a leader in an organization does not have to imply that you are the CEO or a person in authority, you can be an entry-level employee with an organization for just a few weeks and demonstrate leadership.

And also to note, and this is really important, that we are not just leaders and using these great skills of listening and empathy in our organizations. We are leaders in our places of worship. We certainly are leaders in our own homes and many of us, Brent, are leaders in our civic purpose and in the ways that we serve the community. And all of this, of course, is encompassed in what we call the Servant Leadership or the Servant Orientation. And here's the really critical piece for anybody in education or in corporate education, as we reflect on this, I found it very important to share my own limitations and how I was learning about empathy and teaching about empathy. And this was one of the big changes in my world when I returned from the course, was how I was talking and interfacing with people and teaching about listening and empathy.

And we need to do a better job of calling leaders and educators out of that, the ivory tower, and being able to talk about our own imperfections and our own limitations. Because my experience and what I have found, Brent, is that it then gives students and clients permission to fail and permission to learn by revealing their own imperfections. So, that's kind of the second part of the lesson.

And then I call it Bob 2.0. I also include the work of Brené Brown. She has a number of bestselling books out there. But the one that I partner with Bob's book is the Dare to Lead. And not in this course, but in another senior level course that I teach, Bob's book is actually required reading. And the Barry-Wehmiller lesson in the school of thought, if you will, with empathy, this is one of my big aha moments from the course and my takeaway: it is not our job necessarily to make things better, but to make that connection.

And I came home and I really had to sit with this for more than a few days to try to wrap my mind and be able to undo all my previous ways of thinking. That doesn't happen overnight. I didn't come home from the course or finish reading Bob's book and accomplish this change and this personal transformation. It took a long time. And I like to say it this way, "I'm still a work in progress." I think to a degree we all are, we need to be forever students. But to go back to this with empathy, it's not our job to make things better, but to connect. And you're not connecting to the experience necessarily, but the person's emotions to that experience.

Can I offer an example here? An illustration, Brent. So for example, if I have a colleague who is a single mother of three very young children and maybe she's experienced some hardship and she's seeking me out as a listener. I am not a single mother and I can certainly try to flip the lens and, through an empathetic spirit, try my best to understand her circumstance. But that's not necessarily what she's trying to draw from me. She's trying to allow me or help me to connect the emotions to that experience. And what I realized, and this, I'm going to use the words again, aha moment. I remember where I was in the course and the facilitator standing in front of me, because previous to that, I wanted to be, like many people, a fixer. We want to fix it, we want to give advice, and it's an important action to not do that and to be able to sit in that discomfort with them. What Brené Brown calls, "Sit in the darkness," and not give advice, which makes us feel better.

And come on, we have all stood in the ashes. We have all been in that discomfort or that darkness where we needed to turn to somebody and receive from them the spirit of empathy and really great listening. And when we're caught up in, "Gosh, I don't know what to say," we say something from a good place, we're coming to this with goodness, but we're trying to give that advice, which in that moment makes us feel better and it kind of changes it from an orientation about their needs to my needs. And when we can stop doing that, not only does it go from a me-orientation to a we-orientation, but it is so liberating.

Brent, that was one of the other big lessons that I came away with. And this is what we're trying to teach about empathy and listening. We are no longer required to have this, I'm going to use the word burden, to come up with the right advice or the answer to try to fix it. We're liberated from that. But to be able to reflectively say and be in the presence of that other person and simply say something like, "Gosh, I don't even know what to say right now. I can see how much pain you're in or how much confusion or frustration. But you know what? I'm just really glad that you told me." So, we're learning, as I have, and trying to teach that it's not the advice that heals, but the connection.

When I use Bob's book then in this teaching, and I reference his TED Talk, as I said, it remains one of the metrics throughout the course, is that I have learned, and I tell my students, I have learned not to be the knower teacher, but the listener student. And previous to taking the course, I went into that course as the knower teacher because when somebody comes and they say, "Hey, I want to know if I could have a few minutes of your time. I have something heavy that's on my heart." Well, right away we go into the teacher mode or, "Well, gosh, I must be able to provide them with the answer or the advice."

And I no longer come to these circumstances that way or these occasions, but I come to it as listener student. And then we build on that to be able to stay out of judgment, which is very difficult, because that in itself involves compassion. And I remember my mother saying something to the effect that only by giving compassion can you help people find it. And that includes a lot of mindfulness. And I think, Brent, mindfulness is one of those words that has become a buzzword in our society. But here's how I try to think about and teach mindfulness to think very carefully how you want to show up for a conversation and also the spirit of forgiveness in that.

There are times where, maybe, I was picked to be a listener and I did not rise to that occasion with the full weight of my being and I wasn't fully present. And to be able to go back to that person later, even the next day and say, "You know what? You needed me to show up in this way, and I fell short on that and I apologize." And ask for a do-over. It's also really critical to stop and think about the honor, and I use that word deliberately, the honor, Brent, when someone does pick us to be a listener. Stop and think about that. They picked you, so they must hold you in a high esteem or think enough of you to ask for that time. So, as I round out that lesson, again, not just with an academic population, but with my corporate clients as well, we have to be reminded that all of this takes emotional literacy to become fluent. Brené Brown reminds us of this, to become fluent in understanding the language of feelings.

Just like we have to become fluent in learning another language. Well, we have to become fluent in understanding the language of feelings and instead of dispensing advice, to be able to say, "I'm really sorry, that makes me sad that that happened to. You want to talk about it?" And it allows that person to put their emotion on the table. And that leads us to, what I like to call, Second Level Listening. Because in a broader sense, to be able to talk about, I'll just pick a topic, to be able to talk about race, for example. Well, you must first listen, be able to listen about race. To talk about a toxic culture, you must first be proficient at listening about that culture. And it was, let me think. I think it was Stephen Covey, and I'm just going to paraphrase who said, "We must seek first to understand and then to speak." So, how does all of this translate to future leaders.

And Brené Brown, I love this word. She titles this lesson, Skydiving, and I hope I don't mess this up, but she says that we have to really teach people to land before they jump. And if you go skydiving, although I have not, I see no reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, but for those who do, I understand that the instructors spend more time really teaching you to land safely than the actual jump. And the same is true in leadership. We can't expect people to take risks and even possibly fail if they're not prepared for the hard landings. And the bottom line is that if we don't have the skills to get back up, we may not risk falling.

Brent: Yeah, yeah. One of the things that you talked about earlier was the challenges that your students have today. And you said that with electronic communication, empathy is very difficult. Could you talk about that a little bit more? And then talk about some of the other challenges of your students in terms of communication.

Lisa: Sure, absolutely. Well, as I said, it's not their fault, but it's their circumstance. I asked students about their earliest memories with regard to interfacing with technology, and many of them said that they were swiping iPads open and cell phones and learning to open little kitty apps when they were two and three years old. So, it takes them away from that face-to-face context. And the way that empathy is displayed electronically is different than displayed face-to-face. When you think about it, we're lacking that very visceral connection and that human element and the communication situations and the relationships become almost clinical and somewhat sterile, if you will. And I know I'm tremendously defensive of my millennials and the Gen Z, not just because I care deeply about their success, but they have experienced, Brent, a lot of communication circumstances and relational circumstances with technology and via technology that we have not.

Here's an example. Just the other day in class, I was telling my students, you want to talk about empathy, I said I cannot imagine coming of age as a young adult, thinking back to middle school or high school, which for so many of us is hard enough, just coming of age. But to have to do it in an era of social media where there is so much bullying and so much negativity. And certainly social media has its place for a lot of great ways that it connects people and has reunited families and such. But the difficulties, because right now we're talking about challenges and difficulties, is that students have, or not just students but the younger generation, they have really struggled in learning about civility, because it's just not being role modeled. It's not being role modeled in schools, to some extent. It's not being role modeled in social media and in their peer groups. It's not being role modeled as effectively as we'd like to see it in their workplaces.

So, they're struggling to make sense of their place in this very, very complex society. But it is through these generations and some of their unfortunate, very negative experiences that they have kicked the door open, if you will, to those of us who need to talk about and really try to prevent any more downfall of civility in the workplace. Because every day, the students who walk through my classroom door, and I hope this doesn't sound corny or cheesy, but that is the future walking through my classroom door. Those are tomorrow's leaders. And I take that as a very, very profound responsibility to get them prepared to go into the workplace and to be our future leaders.

Brent: In terms of how your students internalize what you're teaching them about communications, is it easier for them to recognize it being an essential part of leadership and an essential part of creating a space where people are valued to lead them? Do you think it's easier for them, at this age, to soak that up, than having gone through a lot of experiences?

Lisa: Well, it can be, and here's why. It's naturally better to correct any kind of a behavior that's not favorable early on, when you first catch it. The old cliché, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." It's very difficult, as you know, to go into an organization when people are 15, 20, 30 years into a career and try to make changes. That can be very, very challenging. Organizations don't become toxic overnight and you can't fix it overnight. So, it is very advantageous to be able to bring this information to these students early in their career paths. And so many, after we watch Bob's talk, will echo a variety of sentiments on different ends of the spectrum. Some students will say, "That makes me feel so good right now, because I have a great supervisor. I have a great leader." And then other students have such a sad face and they'll say, "Oh, my gosh, I can't even imagine that an organization like that would exist. That's almost an unreality in my world. And I want to be that leader."

So, we stop and talk about and dissect it, and I call it a communication autopsy, a leadership autopsy. So, what is it going to take for you to become this leader? And what do you take away? What does empathy mean to you? And for them to understand, for example, about deep listening, that you don't have to have the advice, you don't have to have the answers. It just changes their whole orientation. And they echo that sentiment, "I never really thought of it that way." But they do confirm, absolutely, "I want to be a leader like Bob. I want to be this to my people and this to my organization now."

Another really important part of that lesson that I impart is this, because so many of them, Brent, express frustration, "Well, my leader's older, he or she should know better." So, we have to stop and pause and understand this. You cannot confuse emotional maturity with chronological age. In the Barry-Wehmiller course we study a behavioral profile tendency called, DiSC. And when you study that, you learn that people bring different behaviors. And just because someone is 30 or 40 or 50 doesn't mean that that person is going to naturally be a better leader just because they have more experience or they're older. You cannot equate emotional maturity and communication effectiveness or leadership effectiveness with chronological age. And that's one of those lessons, they just kind of sit there with their mouth open, they're getting it, they're thinking about it. I can see their wheels turning. And it's something that I call profoundly simple, but simply profound.

Brent: As you're working with students who are younger and you're working with executives who have been in the game a while, you're getting a good perspective of the landscape today. What gives you a lot of hope in terms of the leaders of tomorrow and the companies of tomorrow and how, hopefully, more empathetic and caring organizations develop? Where's your sense of hope seeing both of those, that entire range of leaders and future leaders right now?

Lisa: I do have hope, Brent, and maybe part of that is that I just tend to be positive and maybe a little bit idealist, but we live in a very, very complex society. We live in a very complex time. And regardless of your age or your diversity, whatever makes us different, I think we are far more similar as human beings than we are different. We need to learn to celebrate our differences and acknowledge our differences. And we have to learn to create and birth these caring cultures. And again, it doesn't happen overnight, but I do believe that if we can continue to role model the behavior that we want to see in other people, it will take on its own energy.

At the beginning of this, I said that there are a lot of bad leaders out there, very, very good people, but some unfortunately are very bad leaders. I don't believe that people wake up in the morning, that leaders wake up in the morning, and they want to fail. This goes to the intent. We talk a lot about intent. I don't think any leader gets up in the morning with the thought of, "Gee, I want to go in today and really fail in my leadership, and I want to crush my employees, and I don't really want to care about anybody." I don't think people wake up with that mindset. Now, does that happen? Does that behavior actually take place? Of course it does. Because some people, leaders who are already out there in organizations, for one reason or another they have lost their way.

But the good news and where the hope, you asked about hope, where my hope comes in, I believe that we can pull people and organizations back to the center. And we can't be all things to all people. And I know that Bob often says one of the questions that he's asked most by audiences, people get the message and they might say, "Bob, this is great and wonderful and interesting, and I get it as audiences ask of me, but what about the people who don't get it?" And Bob's response, and I piggyback off of that, "Well, we have to help them get it, because it is our responsibility as leaders."

And one of the other lessons that Bob talks about, "With great privilege comes great responsibility." With leadership, in a leadership role, Brent, you don't get to do less work. You are called to do more work and with that comes the great responsibility. So, it's our obligation to help teach people, because we have this information, we have this understanding, and we have it somewhat figured out. Again, I don't ever stand in front of a classroom or nor do I stand in front of audiences and claim to have all the answers. As a matter of fact, I always begin a professional development session or the beginning of a semester by saying, "I stand in front of you a very imperfect individual, because I am a forever student." And I think that any one of us, the moment that we feel that we have arrived in life at any level or in any calling, is where we stop learning and we begin failing.






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