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Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, FACPE Daring Doctors



Good Leaders Listen With Empathy

by Sara Miller, EdD, Coaching Associate with Creative Strategies in Physician Leadership

At one point in my career, I directed a statewide program and had professional relationships with many others throughout Michigan. One day, I received a business call from an associate who worked on the other side of the state. Before her call was transferred to my office, I was predicting an unhappy and hostile conversation since the last few interactions with her had been unexpectedly sharp and angry.  

She was requesting a list of resources from our office. I told her we had published such a list in the blue resource book that was sent to her office earlier that year. Her response was, “You mean that old blue notebook thing. I have never looked at it. It is useless.”  

I was frustrated and I could feel my shield coming up to ward off her pointed arrows.

I decided to take a risk by telling her my feelings. I said I was tense and defensive to her comments, some of which I typically would reflect upon and consider. I expressed my perplexity to the recent tone of our conversations to the striking contrast of our initially gracious and friendly interactions when she was hired six months ago.  

That opened the floodgates. For the next 15 minutes she talked non-stop. She told me of her disappointments and frustrations, not with me, but with her work situation. I turned off my replies; instead I just listened and tried to put myself in her shoes.  

Near the end of the conversation she asked me, “Do you understand?” I told her I thought I did and put into my own words what I thought she had said. At the end of our conversation she thanked me for taking the risk to be candid with her and told me it had been a pleasure talking with me. We both left the call more open, more optimistic and more understood.  

Basically, we all want to get along well with others in our lives, both professionally and personally.  One of the greatest desires of an individual is to be understood. A key factor to understanding another is to listen well.  

Several years ago, I read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and found his short list of listening skills some of the most powerful tools to building good working and personal relations. I have listed them below in hopes that you too will find them beneficial. They are:

Do -

  • Listen with the eyes as well as the heart

  • Have a sincere desire to understand

  • Seek first to understand then to be understood.

  • Realize understanding is not the same as agreeing.

  • Be open.

Do not -

  • Listen with the intention to reply.

  • Project your own autobiography by evaluating, judging, probing, advising or interpreting.

  • Use empathic listen as a technique.

The five steps to learning empathic listening are:

  • Mimic the content of the communication.

  • Rephrase the content

  • Reflect feelings.

  • Rephrase content and reflect feelings

  • Learn when not to reflect.

The greatest courage is to speak honestly. Take a risk to say what you truly feel, then step back and listen. If this is a new skill for you, at first it may feel awkward to communicate, but keep at it. The results can be simply amazing.  

Sara Miller, EdD, CPC, is a professional coach who helps hospitals keep their good doctors.  She is president of True North Coaching. 

Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, FACPE
15600 NE 8th Street, Suite B1-173
Bellevue, WA  98008
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Francine R. Gaillour, MD   ©2006 Ki Health, Inc.