Coffee Conversations Ep. 6: Listen Rather Than Reassure

This past week, I posted an article on LinkedIn about the state of the world today.

The title, “Ending the Poverty of Dignity,” came from a column by Thomas Friedman. I feel it perfectly encapsulates the cause of many of the issues in the U.S. and around the globe:

…if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

I’ve continually written about the importance of true, empathetic listening, because I have seen its power. Listening is the foundation of care but – as the current discourse shows – we’re just not getting the message. The most consistent feedback we get from our team members after they’ve taken the listening skills class we teach through Barry-Wehmiller University is that it changed their lives. I’ve seen people cry who told me it saved their marriage. And I know it is the answer to many issues our society is facing.

Over the past few months, we have shared a video series on this blog, Coffee Conversations, that shares the principles we teach internally at Barry-Wehmiller and externally through Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute and Our Community Listens, the non-profit founded by myself and my wife Cynthia.

They’re entertaining and whimsical, but they all carry very important messages. The new episode is titled “Listen Rather Than Reassure.”


As it says at the end, “Expressing empathy is a more powerful response than reassurance. Simply being present for someone struggling is more important than solving that person’s problem.”

Here’s more insight on this concept from David VanderMolen, the series host and one of our professors in Barry-Wehmiller University:

Reassurance is a statement, or a comment, given to remove a person’s doubts or fears. Reassurance has its place and is often given with good intentions; yet it’s not the best first response to give when someone is experiencing a problem. A much better response is to offer the other a word of encouragement, to share more about their problem with a door opener, to intently listen to what they have to say and to craft and send back to them a reflective response, which is a message that succinctly restates the facts and the feelings of their problem. Replacing reassurance with a reflective response message and intentional listening isn’t always easy to do in the moment; yet when we train ourselves to resist the more common reaction to reassure and we replace it with a response like “Tell me more…” or “I’d like to hear more about that…” we end up being way more helpful to those in our span of care.

The prompt we offer to encourage them to share more enables them to verbalize their problem, vent out loud their frustrations, and to begin the process of solving their own problem.

Here are two questions to think about after watching this episode:

When, where or with who do I tend to respond with reassurance? If I typically respond to a problem with reassurance, what trigger can I put in place to replace reassurance with a reflective response or listening?


Watch past episodes of Coffee Conversations:

Ep.1: Agree, Argue or Accept

Ep. 2: A Recipe for Recognition

Ep. 3: The Five Listening Skills

Ep. 4: The Four Elements of Change

Ep. 5: Casual and Critical Conversations

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.

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