The art of listening

20th Sep, 2022#19

The biggest communication problem we have is that we listen with the intention of replying instead of understanding. This takes away the safety net that a speaker is expecting to have and closes the door on empathy.

That is why it is important to practice the critical art of listening if you wish to grow in how you practice empathy. Mastering it will help you connect with others in a generous and meaningful way. 

Today, I will focus on the critical points that I got after going through a listening training program. I will share with you some basic listening tips as well as some less obvious ones that can make you a better cybersecurity expert. I’ll also share why the podcast went on a brief hiatus and what you can expect to get going forward. 

Tune in and listen to the nineteenth episode of Cyber Empathy to learn how listening can help improve empathy.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • Why I decided to give the podcast a break (01:56)

  • Four main ideas I took from the listening program (08:47)

  • The impact of letting people go through their entire thought process without any interruption (11:37)

  • Examples of empathy blockers (19:03)

Guest

Photography of Andra Zaharia.

Andra Zaharia

Andra helps cybersecurity companies crush clichés with content that breeds loyal customers and fuels growth.

She brings over a decade of digital marketing expertise, half of which she spent in the cybersecurity industry, acting as a bridge between technical pros and business leaders.

She builds content systems that drive organic growth while developing teams, processes, and the strategies to guide them.

When she's not fighting infosec marketing BS, she shines a light on how humans shape online security and privacy in her podcast, Cyber Empathy.

Transcription

[00:41] Andra Zaharia: Since the first time you heard me speak on the Cyber Empathy podcast, empathy has been all around, especially in the tech industry, but also funneled beyond it. There's been a lot of talk about it, a lot of articles. It's been kind of hyped up, challenged, and everything else that happens when a topic gets a lot of hot takes. So, I wanted to take this opportunity now that the podcast is back after a six months pause. I wanted to take this chance to tell you a little bit about what's happened in the meanwhile, what I've learned, how this podcast is evolving, and how I hope it serves you in the long run. So, I'm going to share some personal learnings that I've had this past half a year and how it's influencing the work that I do with this podcast but also well beyond it because my work and my community involvement in this podcast are all intertwined and they fuel each other a lot. 

[01:50] So, let's start with probably your first and most important question: Hey, why did you stop making the podcast for such a long time? The reason is kind of a simple one and something that you might have felt as well. In February, it was quite difficult for me to focus on anything else. As you may or may not know, I'm based in Bucharest, Romania, so the emotional impact of the war was extremely powerful. And it took a while to be able to cope with this new reality and handle this new layer of anxiety and fear and everything else that comes with it, which, again, is something that a lot of people have gone through. It's just that I realized that I couldn't possibly serve this podcast with the positivity and energy that I usually put into it. So I had to give myself a break. Of course, I also talked to Dave Smyth, my co-host, and we both agreed that it would be a good idea to hit the brakes and give ourselves some time to process everything that's going on in this period of practicing what we preach, which is a lot of self-empathy, a lot of giving ourselves space to really go through things and be present instead of dismissing them and powering through, which is something that I've done a lot in the past and would not recommend as a coping strategy. So, we took this break, but during this break, during the past months, I haven't just sat around and waited for things to go by, two important experiences happened in the meanwhile. 

[03:40] First of all, what I wanted to try this year was to do less. So, that involved facing my fear of doing fewer things, which is something that I've never tried before. I've always been focused on doing more things, not fewer. And that really took a bit of energy from me to constantly stay in that awareness that I decided and I promised myself that I would take on fewer projects and do fewer things. And taking a break from the podcast played into that. It was difficult because I feared that you wouldn't be here to listen to the next episodes because I fear that I'd be letting you down and I'd be letting other people down, that I would somehow not be enough just because I had always been there for the projects that I committed to, and I've never taken such a long break. So, this was different, difficult, but I drew a lot of lessons from it, and now I'm able to come back to this project with renewed enthusiasm, excitement, and the same level of commitment that I gave to it when I first started doing the Cyber Empathy podcast. So, that was one thing: facing my fear of doing less, which is a topic that I’d like to keep for a future episode so I can go in-depth with someone who has also gone through the same thing because I really believe that practicing empathy, whether it is on ourselves or with others, involves being very honest with ourselves and other people, and facing our fears, and being vulnerable, and these things always go together. And I feel like some of the most powerful stories that I've heard here on the podcasts, in private conversations and throughout my life, all have to do with vulnerability, openness, and this kindness, compassion, and empathy that come with this practice of showing up for people and showing up for yourself. So, I'll explore this particular topic on facing fears, particularly the fear of doing less and slowing down in a future episode. 

[06:13] So that was one of the things that happened. The other thing that happened is that I did a program focused on developing my listening skills because I wanted to explore new ways to deepen my practice of empathy and my understanding of this concept while I was on that break. And it was really helpful and really rewarding to go through such an intense experience because I realized that although I do a lot of listening to guests on the podcasts, the people around me, customers, my clients and their customers, and people that I work with, it's my job to listen to them and listen thoughtfully. Although I do this a lot, I realized that my ability to listen to other people was not quite as developed as I thought it was. So, it was a sobering experience, and one that really elevated my understanding of certain nuances and aspects that are involved in the listening process and how important our ability to listen is to our ability to be empathetic and to practice this empathy in a way that elevates our work, that elevates our relationships and just makes our lives better. So, at the core of this realization, since the fact that we see this issue all around us, we don't feel like people are really listening to us. And perhaps many of the people around us feel the same, that we don't listen to them well enough, and we don't listen to understand but we listen to reply. And the more stressed out, the more tired we are, the less we're able to listen to other people. And that creates a lot of problems that could be avoided, it creates a lot of frustration, a lot of tension, and that escalates into a lot of the issues that you're probably dealing with as well. So, this is why I wanted to take a moment and share with you some of the things that I've learned in this program and how I've seen them tied to the core structure of this podcast, and how I hope to serve you through it. So, here are four main ideas that I took from this listening program, and they're all focused on practicing empathy. 

[08:58] So, the first one is this: Our bodies cannot tell the difference between real and imagined threats. Neuroscience has proved this time and again. So, in cybersecurity particularly, and related to cybersecurity, experiences that are related to cybersecurity put us in a state of stress. So, when we are in that state of stress, our bodies don't react well; we can’t make good decisions because we instantly go into fight-or-flight, we become defensive so we don't pay as much attention to what other people tell us. And this happens in kind of every aspect of cybersecurity whether you're just a regular person who has nothing to do with the industry but you have to deal with, let's say, managing your passwords or you heard about another cyber attack or things like that. That is going to stress you out, it is going to frustrate you, and it is going to impair your ability to listen and to act on something that might help you. That realization by itself can be quite helpful. If you're someone in, let's say, a management position or a CEO role, and you have to deal with cybersecurity things and all the complexity that it brings, and all the questions around it, that's going to stress you out. And again, that's going to make you less receptive to what specialists will tell you, to what other people are trying to communicate. So, I feel that it is incredibly important to be able to realize that our listening abilities are worth cultivating and developing, especially in cybersecurity, especially when we have to deal with complex abstract notions that our bodies perceive as really stressful. And being able to truly listen to someone, being able to sit there and just be in the moment, be committed to the other person, and giving them your full attention that can really change things. I've seen some of the life-changing conversations that I've had with people along the years, in many roles from many different perspectives, have all been so impactful because we were there for one another because those conversations were wrapped up in a protective bubble of sorts that concentrated our attention and our energy on that particular moment. Because what I've seen and what I've learned is that when you listen to people, when you let them work through their thoughts and get clarity; when you're able to be a sounding board for the other person; when you're able to hold space for the other person and let them go through their entire thought process without interrupting them and without disconnecting from that conversation, things can really improve substantially: you get more clarity, you have that sense of connection, you strengthen the relationship, and a lot of good decisions can come from this and it can really accelerate good decisions and the actions that come from them. So, that was an important thing that I wanted to mention, which is the idea that we can reduce stress and tension by listening and by practicing empathy through listening and through being present. 

 

[12:37] The second thing that I learned was around judgment. In cybersecurity, especially if you're on Twitter, you will see a lot of hot takes. And not just on Twitter, but in the media as well, generally. And hot takes are basically judgment. And when we judge someone, we usually judge something within ourselves, which can signal that there's an issue there that's worth exploring or perhaps working on. So, even if we're the kind of people who just read the tweets or read the news article without actually commenting on it. Even if we judge people in our mind, without telling them, it still impacts that relationships in that perception. Because when we're listening and when we're reading for something, we'll probably look for confirmation for the scenario that we created in our mind. We can’t see people for what they are and what they do. Instead, we try to pick and choose things from their behavior so we could match them with that profile that we’ve built in our brains. One of the things that was helpful throughout this program was to really practice this and go through this exercise where we had to distinguish between facts and judgment. A fact is something that's objective. For example, let's say someone didn't want to help their friend or acquaintance move. But that fact can become a judgment when we add a layer of interpretation. For example, if we say, “Hey, that that was a bad person for not wanting to help their friend move,” that's a judgment because we don't really know if they're a bad person, we don't know what their rationale was, and we're basically just assuming that that is a bad person. And obviously, we're judgmental people because we've evolved as such and it really comes naturally to us. And the goal is not to never judge another person again ever because that's going to be impossible, including ourselves. But rather, the goal is to be able to distinguish between facts and judgments. So, that's one of the things that really stood out for me, especially — and I wanted to pay special attention to this — when I'm triggered. Because when we get triggered by something — whether it's a hot take, a news item, conversation, a new vulnerability, whatever it is — it becomes more difficult for us to identify facts, we go, again, into fight-or-flight because triggers generate a strong negative reaction in us. So, it's important to realize and to look into this, and I know it's not that easy to practice as it sounds. But it's important to realize when we get triggered that it's not always because something, someone did something, but because there's something in us that we haven't yet resolved around that issue. 

[15:58] For example, for many people, the issue of dealing with passwords and keeping them safe is a huge trigger. It's a huge trigger because it brings on a lot of frustrating experiences from the past, a lot of situations when these people felt inadequate, when they felt not competent enough, perhaps not knowledgeable enough, fed up, and so on and so forth — so, a lot of negative emotions. And that's because they haven't taken the time to set up a password manager, for example, or things like that because they feel that some things are out of their control, because they feel that password security brings on too much complexity into their lives and they don't really see what the point is to go through all that trouble. This trigger leads to all of this emotional overwhelm because there's a lack of clarity there, there's a lack of understanding why this is important for their digital lives, what it can do for them in a positive way, and how it can affect them in a negative way. And obviously, not everyone can spend the time to figure out why they're triggered and what to do about it. So, that way, I feel that one of the key elements in cyber security and in relationships, and how these two come together, is to have someone you can trust who can help answer these questions. Have a person that's close to you, or someone online, or sort of community that can really help you with questions and make you feel safe to ask any kind of questions around security, around technical stuff, around privacy, things that you're not an expert in. And I really, really believe this — and this concept applies to many other things as well, not just cybersecurity — I think that that's what's interesting, particularly about looking at cybersecurity from an empathy angle, is that you discover a lot of things that you can carry into other areas of your lives. There are tons of evergreen concepts, examples, perspectives that you can use to improve other areas of your life. So, having someone you can trust is essential to security, it is essential to privacy. Trust is tied into our need for security, which is one of our fundamental needs. So being able to rely on this type of a relationship is extremely important, whether you work in companies, whether you're at home and you have to deal with taking care of the devices that your entire family uses; whatever the situation is, trust, a healthy relationship, listening and empathy, make a difference that has a very good and strong and positive ripple effect into your life. 

[19:03] So, I wanted to tie another aspect here that I learned into this conversation, which is the challenge that empathy blockers bring in. While we were in this program dedicated to developing our listening skills, we specifically learned about some empathy blockers that generate disconnect in a conversation. So, for example, the big idea around empathy blockers is that when you're talking to someone, if you keep thinking about how you'll be perceived by the other person, you disconnect from the other person and you can end up using these empathy blockers which basically signal to the other person that you're no longer there, you're no longer emotionally involved, and leads to the other person shutting down, dropping off, and just taking two steps back. So, four of these empathy blockers, which I've seen myself use quite a lot, unfortunately, are domination, manipulation, disempowerment, and denial. And then just to give you a quick example on each, if you search online for these empathy blockers, you can read a lot more about them. My goal here is not to go into detail, but rather to give you some things that I thought were really useful. And if they resonate, you can explore them further. 

[20:30] One of the first empathy blockers is domination. For example, if you're threatening, ordering, criticizing, or name-calling someone, of course, these are whole empathy blockers, they will not get you positive reaction from the other person, neither will phrases that include “should” — like “Hey, you shouldn't be so angry. You shouldn't be so bothered.” Because that's never ever created a positive response for someone. Telling people to — just like the well-known example — calm down hasn't helped anyone calm down in the history of calming down. So, trying to dominate the other person is, obviously, unempathetic and will immediately lead to a disconnect in that relationship and in that conversation.

The second empathy blocker - manipulation - can look like withholding relevant information, can look like interrogating, can also look like praise. Especially, for example, when you get praised for something that you really good at, but you get praised because the other person knows that you're more likely to do the thing simply because they told you that you’re really good at it. So, that was quite eye-opening for me to realize that there are so many manifestations to these empathy blockers and we're only halfway.

The third one is disempowerment. For example, labeling people and diagnosing their motives without actually listening to what the other person has to say and letting them express their motive can be really disheartening. Giving untimely advice when people don't ask for it is a huge empathy blocker, and one that I've been guilty on more times than I would like to admit. I have the tendency to jump in and help people without asking them if they want to be helped first. And this is one of the key things that I've been working on since doing this course, and it's really created some positive change that I've been able to observe. It has also helped me gain some breathing room in the process. Also, disempowerment as an empathy blocker can manifest by changing the topic — so, leaving the other person stranded in the middle of the conversation, trying to persuade them with logic, and without letting them go through their entire thought process and rather trying to analyze their thought process while they're speaking. And also topping. And, oh boy, this is something that I use as well. For example, when someone tells you that they're going through a rough time, you come in and say, “Yeah, but let me tell you about that time that I had something much worse happened to me.” It dilutes their problem and minimizes it. That person might feel like they shouldn't be talking about this because other people have it much worse and their frustration, their grief, their anger isn't justified. These are all facets to explore. 

[23:54] Again, if this is interesting to you, let me know and I might do an episode that's dedicated entirely to empathy blockers. So, the last empathy blocker is denial; refusing to address an issue and trying to be reassuring to the other person without holding that space for them can, again, cause disconnect in the conversation, it can impact the relationship and really rob you of opportunities to connect and to understand the other person. So, hey, who knew there are so many manifestations, especially some that feel positive to the people involved? And who knew these manifestations can hurt the connection between two people and hurt your ability to be empathetic so much? Something to explore. 

[24:45] So, as a round up to the things that I've learned, one last thing is that empathy does not mean agreement, and empathy really works if it comes before honestly. We should always check in with people before sharing advice, it helps us to check in with people before offering advice or suggestions, and see if they're open to receiving it or if they just need someone to listen to them. To me, this exercise in developing my listening abilities was a form of exploration, and this is how I see empathy as well, as an exploration of other people, of other people needs and mentalities and how we might be able to peel away a lot of the misconceptions and biases and distortions that sit in our way and really connect with others so we can have better conversations, stronger relationships, do better and more meaningful work, and try to resolve some of the key issues that affect everyone's lives. This is how I see this podcast continuing to serve you, and this is what I wish for it to surface all these ways in which people act empathetically to understand how we might be hurting others while trying to be empathetic or believing that we are empathetic, and collecting proof along the way on how we really behave so we don't reinforce our self-limiting beliefs but rather look for new and more generous ways to connect to other people. 

[26:23] After this program and after the past six months in which I've been studying empathy and been practicing a lot of these things, I have a new appreciation for people who can sit in silence, listen, and hold space for others. I also learned that I can take time to think and ask for the time if I need it, whereas I felt like I always had to be prepared, I always had to be on point, and never giving myself a bit of leeway if I needed it. So, that’s a lesson in self-empathy that really helped me. And also, I feel less guilt about not doing this podcast for a few months because I am now able to bring more value to it. I'm able now to bring a different perspective, a bit more attention to nuance and details. And to put everything that I've learned to good use, not just for myself, but obviously for you, since you're listening and giving me your time so generously. So, what you can expect from the podcast is to continue to be a series of interviews, sprinkled with solo episodes and conversations between me and Dave, and a lot of other formats that will be a testament to this mission to explore empathy, its manifestations, and how it can serve the cybersecurity community in general. 


[27:54] So, two ways that I plan to walk the talk, which is something that's really important to me, is that I'm soon launching a list of 50 questions to help you practice empathy. In the past, I have created a list of 100 questions to help you with decision-making for the podcast that I used to do, “How do you know?” But these are specifically geared towards practicing empathy, they are not necessarily easy, and they will not necessarily feel comfortable using. But I promise you that if you give them a chance, they can really help. And then my thought, my next project is to put together 100 free things to help you weave empathy into your interaction — so, ways to express yourself that keep empathy in that level of awareness that we all need, and also help carry conversations forward without bringing in empathy blockers and bringing in all of other kinds of issues that might hurt your connection to other people. So, I hope that these things that I've learned have helped you. I hope that you understand why I took this break and what's coming next after it. I'm really thankful to be able to do this project because it gives me an opportunity to reflect, to connect, to share with you what I learned, and to keep getting and fueling my own enthusiasm with the energy that other people put into this podcast either by being a guest on it, giving feedback, and especially by listening to it like you're doing now. So, thank you for being here. Thank you for continuing to listen to the podcast. Thank you for keeping empathy in your horizon and in your life. I can't wait to share the next episode with you. I'll see you soon.