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  • Bob Burg

“If Benjamin Franklin had picked someone to teach the lessons in self-mastery that he used in his life, he would have picked Bob Burg.”

~ Vic Johnson, Founder AsAManThinketh.net

Compassionate Emptiness. Don’t Solve, Just Listen.

March 21st, 2012 by Bob Burg

There are certainly times when — as a leader, coach or mentor — when someone comes to you with a problem or concern, it is indeed your job to solve it. However, such a situation is much more rare than the need to listen. To just listen.

In his book, It’s Not About The Coffee, Retired Starbucks President, Howard Behar (with Janet Goldstein) writes about a term he calls “Compassionate emptiness.” He says this concept — based on the teaching of Western Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein — asks us to be caring but empty of opinions.

In other words, rather than trying to solve, we simply listen.

As Behar explains:

“Think about what happens when somebody comes into your office with a problem — whether work or personal. The tendency is to want to solve it. But most of the time, people aren’t asking for help, they’re asking to be heard. And most of the time, you shouldn’t be solving the problem anyway.

“There’s a way to help people move through their concerns without owning them yourself. That’s compassionate emptiness. It’s full of compassion but empty of solutions. It’s very difficult to do.

“Yet, if you are able to grasp and harness lessons of compassionate emptiness, they will be your guide to listening and communicating in a new and profound way.”

Personally, this has always been difficult for me. By my very nature, I’m a problem-solver. Thus, when someone approaches me with a problem, my inclination is to go right into solution-mode rather than to listen; to just listen.

I’m getting a lot better at having “compassionate emptiness” (though until now I didn’t have a name for it) with a long way still to go. As I’ve become better at this, however, I’ve noticed my level of effectiveness in helping others has increased. I’ve had to practice it a lot though. :-)

How about you? Are you able to listen without problem-solving? What have you found to be a good way to practice and improve this very effective skill?

57 Responses to “Compassionate Emptiness. Don’t Solve, Just Listen.”
  1. Patricia Rossi said at 8:38 am on

    Good Morning Bob,
    When I have the discipline to practice compassionate emptiness when someone is telling me their problem, magic unfolds.
    Layers upon layers of truth, solution, and resolve presents itself and much is learned by the speaker and listener.
    All good things,
    Patricia Rossi

  2. Steve Dorfman said at 8:39 am on

    I’ve definitely grappled with this in business and in life. …and now as a newlywed ;)

    Wonderful advice.

  3. Bob Burg said at 8:45 am on

    Patricia, I’ve noticed that same thing. It’s as though it opens up a channel of understanding. What a great way of looking at it. Your comment will help me next time as I’m remembering to listen…to just listen. :-)

  4. Bob Burg said at 8:46 am on

    Thanks, Steve. And, if I know you, you’ll turn it into one of your greatest strengths!

  5. Linda Ryan said at 8:49 am on

    Like you, I struggle with this skill, but have gotten way better over the past few years. My Nurse-brain was trained to solve problems and my Coach-brain is learning to help my client solve problems, which often requires me to be quiet. Like Patricia said, “magic unfolds” usually when I am NOT talking. Great post, Bob!

  6. Bob Burg said at 8:57 am on

    Linda: Wow – great wisdom in your comments and how the two “brains” would naturally approach something from those two opposite angles. I love it! Thank you!

  7. While I appreciate the intent, the term “Compassionate Emptiness” doesn’t resonate with me. There must be a better term to use that will lend itself to a more positive mindset. Emptiness suggests a void — why not just become more “Compassionate” [period]?

    CLB

  8. Michelle said at 9:04 am on

    Another great topic Bob! I think it was in ‘Men are from Mars.. Women are from Venus’ that I read about this often being a male trait, that husbands try to solve their wife’s problems rather than just empathise, but I’m sure I have been guilty of it too.

    Somehow it does always seem easier to solve other people’s problems than our own too. The ability to just listen (as counsellors often do, offering no opinion) can often give a person the opportunity to solve their own problems, just by working through them out loud. We can’t usually solve someone else’s problem nearly as well as they can solve it themselves.. and they are way more likely to listen to their own advice!

  9. Bob Burg said at 9:10 am on

    Hi Christine. I interpreted the term “emptiness” in this case as not pre-judging a situation based on pre-conceived notions of what we think we know (in other words, our mind being full with what we “already think we know” rather than empty and receptive), but rather having that “beginner’s” mind that is often talked about in Zen. But, that’s just my interpretation. I can certainly understand that the term might not resonate with everyone. I had to read it over a couple of times and rattle it around in my head before I felt as though I could embrace it. And, who knows; there could indeed be a better term than that. I’m not sure that just “compassion” does it, however, because “compassion” can be acted upon in many different ways. The author of the phrase was trying to make a specific point in terms of how that compassion would be implemented. Again, just my thoughts. Anyone else?

  10. Bob Burg said at 9:12 am on

    Hi Michelle, I agree that when people come up with their own answers/solutions, they “buy into it” a lot deeper. As effective listeners, I think it’s our job to provide the context for them to do this. And even a few well-placed questions while we listen can go a long way. Thank you for sharing with us!

  11. Amy Wells said at 9:14 am on

    I use to try to fix everybody, until I realized that I was the one who needed fixing, I no longer “had the need.” (I really thought I “needed” to fix them.) In fact, the 1st visit I made to some friends house, after I fixed me, the man of the house said, “What have you done? I want what you got.” I shared my journey and he too went on the journey, and “fixed himself.” He use to have “fix other-ite-us” bad too. After a few weeks, his wife called and asked, “What did you do with my husband? He is no longer a workaholic and he wants to spend time with the family now.” lol He later told me that he figured out that he stayed at the office a lot, because it was exhausting going home and fixing his family.

    Ive learned that listening beyond the words becomes so much easier when we do as you suggest: “compassionate emptiness.”

    On another note, a man once tried to fix me, “through his lense and forceful opinion” and he was so very far off of what I needed, that my spirit was crushed for years. It’s been 5 years since he did this, and I still struggle with the effects of what he did to me. I did get a great lesson lesson out it though: How not to treat people. :-)

    Thank you for another great post Bob.

  12. Bob Burg said at 9:21 am on

    WOW – Amy. You did it again, my friend. What a wise comment. Of course, you KNOW I’m going to suggest (whoops) that you include that in your book! ;-) Truly, what a remarkable story!!

  13. Amy Wells said at 9:36 am on

    Thank you and LOL and Bob, you have been the most amazing role model for me, when it comes to listening from the heart. You are such an encourager and encouraging isn’t the same as “fixing.” You’ve taught me that fine, life changing balance.

  14. Carol said at 10:34 am on

    I need to work this because I always felt the compassionate thing is to offer solutions,however when I have a problem I find it works for me.they listen and may at times direct me to good reads but let me find my solution . That is rewarding,also just their belive in me that I will find my solution works!

  15. Abhinav Gulechha said at 11:10 am on

    Hi Bob

    Its my previlige to be in a position to communicate with you through your blog. I read your book “Go-Giver” it was recommended by one of my friends, and its life changing. Thank you so much.

    On the post in particular, yes, the problem solving always takes dominance over listening, but yes, a compassionate attitude to listen to the case properly can go a long way towards an effective solution and client satisfaction. I will definitely try it out.

    Thank you.

    Abhinav Gulechha

  16. I can appreciate your insight on the term Bob. I too will need to allow it to “rattle around in my head” so I can fully receive the message. I will say this though, I’ve already had the opportunity to quote this blog post in one of my emails to my BNI Executive Team.

    The thoughts shared here definitely ring true, my only concern is the actual term. :-)

    CLB

  17. Lene Jytte Hansen said at 11:21 am on

    AWESOME article Bob!!!
    This is how I DO personal coaching!!!! We contact a specific “problem” and the person I’m having “in session” tells me specific incident where this problem occur – and I listen and acknowledge. Then we go to simmalar specific “problem” – same procedure – We continue until the person him- or herself cognites on a solution and feels able to handle!!!! No one knows better than the person him- or herself what the solution is for him/her.
    I learned that skill on a communication course – wich I by the way also can deliver to others.
    Thank’s Bob :)

  18. Bob Burg said at 11:59 am on

    Thank you Amy! :-)

    Carol: The great thing is that you are aware of it, and that is the first step. Good for you! I’ve found it to be a continuing work in progress for me, with – as mentioned in the article – a long way to go. The good news is, we don’t have to be perfect; just try out best. The improvement will come! Thank you for sharing with us!

    Christine: Thank you so much for sharing the post. Means a LOT to me, my friend. Please tell your BNI Executive Team I said hello. And, yes, even if the “term itself” doesn’t ring true for you, their message is certainly a good one.

    Lene: As always, thank you for your very kind and encouraging words. And, I can absolutely believe that is how you coach. Your warmth, kindness and wisdom always comes right through!! Thank you, my friend!

  19. Bob Burg said at 12:03 pm on

    Hello Abhinav, my apologies for just now seeing your comment, so my response to you might not be in the order of the others. Thank you so much for writing and for your very kind words. So glad you found “The Go-Giver” to be of value. Please tell your friend who recommended it to you that I said thank you. :-) And, thankyou for your comments and sharing your thoughts and wisdom with us. Welcome to our blog family!

  20. Rick White said at 12:54 pm on

    Thank you Bob for sharing such a SUPERFANTASTIC thought process! (I am envious of your ability to come up with challenging material on such a regular basis) My natural behavior has been to try guessing at and solving the concern of the person I am listening to after the second or third word which really didn’t work well for me (can you say two ex-wives?). Now I listen to understand, rephrase what I heard and then go into solve it mode. You now have raised the bar even higher for me to stop doing even that. Thank goodness I am a lifelong learner.

  21. Bob Burg said at 1:25 pm on

    Rick, thank you. And, actually, I often wonder where new material will come from. Fortunately, I read a lot which, like the book above, spurs good ideas. There are also so many natural occurrences in life that make for great materials, so long as I look at them through the eyes of a blogger. LOL. Thank you for your comments. And I’m greatly impressed Rick by how much you want to continue to grow in your communication. Good (GREAT) for you!

  22. I had the worst possible form of the problem-solving problem! I used to be in an office space where there were several of us in a tall-ceilinged room and just cubicle dividers. Not only did I give advice when talked to, but I would jump into other people’s conversations and even phone calls =-0

    The memory is so embarrassing. I must have been so annoying! I finally realized what was happening and I was so eager to fix my own problem that I moved my office into the basement!

    I’m now very aware of not doing that. Your post though reminds me that it’s an easy trap to fall into and I must be vigilant in conversation.

    I will keep reminding myself that most people KNOW how to solve their own problem. They either want validation of their solution or just some sympathy. We all like to get a little understanding now and then.

  23. Bob Burg said at 2:28 pm on

    Hi Beth, Wow – as always, you have gone above and beyond in sharing yourself, your experiences and your wisdom with us. Thank you very much!!

  24. Wow – what an amazing conversation you’ve begun here, Bob. Thanks so much for sharing the wisdom and heart of Howard Behar and his book It’s Not About the Coffee, which I was lucky enough to co-author.

    A funny addition: Howard’s wife, who thought the concept of “compassionate emptiness” was arcane and hard to grasp, asked me what I made of concept since she said it went right over her head. I didn’t take her comment at face value, but I did work hard to make the idea accessible without it becoming just another “to-do’ in a self-help business book. To me, compassionate emptiness calls us to be truly present and open to the truth of a person, situation, or moment.

  25. Al Smith said at 4:04 pm on

    Hi Bob. This is fantastic. You are so right. We truly connectMost of the time people just want to be heard. I think men especially, are geared to be “fix it” types or problem solvers. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to do this, but like you say, it does work and is a better way to help others.

    In a great piece by Rachel Naomi Remen, titled “Just Listen”, she says this; “Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention” and “A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words”

    “We have to care enough and value the other person enough to want to listen”

    Another great post Bob. Thanks for this powerful message and reminder.

    Al

  26. Matthew Reed said at 4:12 pm on

    Great post Bob. First time to your blog, and it’s fantastic. As a life and leadership coach, listening, really deep listening is the number one commodity that I give to my clients. Just because it is my profession doesn’t mean that it is easy. I too am a problem solver at heart, so the tip of my tongue has gotten a little calloused as I’ve bit it during my coaching client calls.
    Practically speaking, I have a goal to let the client speak 80% of the time. I don’t literally use one, but I imagine a chess timer when I am speaking with my clients, you know the ones with two stopwatches on them. At the end of an hour I want mine to have no more than 12 minutes on it.

  27. Bob Burg said at 4:34 pm on

    Thank you, Al. I appreciate you sharing those great thoughts; both from you, and from Rachel Naoi Remen!

  28. Bob Burg said at 4:40 pm on

    Hi Janet, thank you for joining the discussion! Always nice to get a “weigh-in” from the author. I thought you and Howard put out a terrific book. A great read filled with lots of applicable wisdom and great insight as to why the company has been so successful. You did a superb job in taking Howard’s leadership style and putting it into words for us. Thank you. And, thank you for the added bonus of the “behind the scenes” regarding Mrs. Behar. :-)

  29. Bob Burg said at 4:43 pm on

    Matthew, thank you for joining us. Welcome to our “blog family.” :-) I love what you wrote about it being difficult despite being such an important part of your profession. And, yes, I can relate to a calloused tongue, at least figuratively. Not to mention a “bitten lip” or two. :-) Terrific piece of advice regarding the imaginary chess timer and 80% rule. Thanks again for sharing with us!

  30. You did again, Bob…and Amy….I could kiss you! Exactly the same here, until one day, I got very quiet in my head, opened my heart (for lack of a better word) and just allowed life’s flow….well…..flow!

    This is a fabulous post, but also, a very challenging reminder that some of us are still in the path of fixingme, notfixingthem; and quiet listening, just like classical music…it’s food for the soul, and pure magic to our dreams. ♥

    Bless you all.

  31. Bob Burg said at 7:16 pm on

    Thank you, Ali. Your feedback is always encouraging. And, the wisdom you share always adds a LOT to the conversation. Huge thanks and gratitude to/for you!

  32. Kim Schuld said at 7:26 pm on

    What timing!
    So much of what’s out there in the business world is screaming at us to “solve their problem” to get them to buy our product/service. But how can you even hear what their true problem is until you take time to listen to them?

    And for interpersonal relationships and office relationships, such profound advice. We are encourage to live at the speed of light and other people’s thoughs are so 29 seconds ago…no wonder we have a world of people aching to be heard.

    Thanks again Bob!

  33. I am humbled Bob, and deeply grateful for the awesome people that continue to show up to your posts. Yes, like attracts like…..and the wisdom, is personally enriching beyond belief.

    Thank you for all you do, and for allowing us to play in your sandbox.

  34. Bob Burg said at 8:01 pm on

    Kim, great points all around, thank you. I love that “so 29 seconds ago.” :-) Thanks for being a part of our discussion!

  35. Tatyana Gann said at 10:19 pm on

    What a great topic. I agree people want to be heard. Especially we women want to be heard. Men are natural problem solvers and since I have been working with a lot of men as my clients I learned to be a problem solver more and I know people want to heard. It is a sign that people crave attention..

    Thank you..

    Tatyana

  36. Bob Burg said at 10:54 pm on

    Hello, Tatyana, great to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed the topic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Keep up the great work you’re doing!

  37. Lori Gosselin said at 8:01 am on

    Hi Bob,
    This is a great article. Like you I am a problem-solver so I find it hard to “be caring but empty of opinions.” I believe the key for me would be humility; realizing I don’t necessarily have ALL the answers and that if I listen well enough, the person will come to find the answer within. It’s not easy, I agree, but just bringing these thoughts together has inspired me to try harder!
    Thanks for that! It’s nice to meet you!
    Lori

  38. Bob Burg said at 9:04 am on

    Lori, thank you. So glad you enjoyed it. And, yes, humility as you define it is perfect for this, isn’t it? Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us! Great to meet you, as well. Please stop back more often.

  39. [...] Burg asks.. Do you need to spend more time listening rather than jumping to [...]

  40. Christie Ellis said at 2:54 pm on

    I love this topic! I have a background in Social Work so like Linda Ryan changing hats can be a challenge. In learning how to just listen, it use to make me batty not saying anything. So much so that, after a conversation where I felt like I had great problem solving techniques, I would wait until the person had left and then I would tell anything within ear shot of me, didn’t matter if it was a lamp, the computer, whatever, exactly what I thought. That made the pent up energy go away :) After a while I learned, but wow, did it take longer than I thought…although the upside is my lamp has fewer issues now :)

  41. Karen Stavert said at 3:46 pm on

    Bob, thank you for you, for this article and your wonderful question.

    When my ego is in the driver’s seat, my mouth wants to spew
    solutions…. :)

    I’m becoming more able to bite my tongue and keep
    my mind and heart open and mouth and ego closed -
    with my tongue being no worse for wear.

    We all wear an invisible sign ….. “Please, make me feel important”
    and being heard goes a long way to filling that need…. Being completely
    present is a wonderful gift to both give and receive.

  42. Bob Burg said at 3:48 pm on

    Christie: LOLOLOLOL!!

  43. Bob Burg said at 3:58 pm on

    Wow – thank you, karen; both for your very kind words as well as the wisdom you so graciously shared with us. And, welcome to our blog family!

  44. Amy Wells said at 4:59 pm on

    Your fabulous blog had me reflect some more on the changes I’ve made as I “fixed me,” (still workin on me) and control was a doozie for me. I think by trying to fix people and give them unwanted advice, I may have been trying to control them, as opposed to what I do now, quite simply accepting them and allowing them to simply “be.” Not only is the latter a much nicer, and easier place to come from, it’s really more effective and more appropriate.

  45. Bob Burg said at 7:26 pm on

    Amy, I call it “benevolent control”, also known as: “If everyone would only do exactly what I want them to do then all will be fine with the world.” That was me, my friend. And, I really did think that way. Fortunately, I finally came to the conclusion that there was only one “General Manager of the Universe” and that He was much more qualified for the job. LOL

  46. I’m amazed how you all resonate with my own journeys, some of them still on-going. I’m reading Amy’s comments, and it’s like listening to my echo, and I read yours Bob, same thing. What wonderful stuff we have in common, and more importantly, how we strive to thrive in self betterment in the service of others. I’m touched. I feel very “included” and very much part of this newly found group of Like-Thinkers.

  47. Bob Burg said at 7:50 pm on

    And we’re delighted to have you with us, Ali, as we all take this very similar journey. Thanks so much for joining us!

  48. Amy Wells said at 12:12 am on

    Ali, kisses back at cha. :-) Let me give you some advice….just kidding. LOL But I will always give you an ear.

    Bob LOL My conversation with God, went like this: through tears, “God, I can’t do this anymore!!” He answered, “It’s about time…..” :-)

  49. Karen Stavert said at 10:06 am on

    Bob, we have been “friends” on FB for years. I quite regularly read and appreciate your posts there.

    Yesterday was the first time I ever came on over to your blog and read the expanded version of you and I’m so glad that I finally did.

    You are delightful and gracious and humourous and wise. Your transparency is refreshing, too.

    I have never attached significance to names – including my own :) As in, I’m not interested in getting to know someone just because they are… I’m interested in getting to know people and then, their name has significance. It wasn’t a decision that I’m aware of… just how I was wired.

    So, imagine my surprise when I was wandering through Amazon yesterday… I saw your image attached to several books… books that are in my Kindle library no less :)

    I’m a VERY kinesthetic learner and am extremely aware of energies of people around me.

    Who you are, the energy of you that you share with the world, creates a whole lot of space for those who interact with you – gives us more room to be we – who we are.

    I’m honoured to be your “friend” and to be part of this community.

  50. Bob Burg said at 7:10 pm on

    Karen, I don’t even know what to say to you in order to properly express my thanks and gratitude for your very kind words. So, please just know how appreciative I am. Welcome to our blog family!!

  51. Tony Marciante said at 9:00 pm on

    Such a great point, I’m probably better at this with my employees than with my wife…my day is fraught with problem solving as with so many entrepreneurs. Your point is a GREAT reminder to relax, truly listen and see what the other person is really seeking.

  52. Bob Burg said at 9:20 pm on

    Ahhhh Tony, isn’t it always easier when less emotionally involved. :-)

  53. [...] I Think She Just Needs To Be Listened To April 11th, 2012 by Bob Burg In a recent post we looked at the importance of listening. Just listening; not [...]

  54. [...] Lori Tweet I read a great article the other day by Bob Burg about listening. Listening well is extremely difficult to do when someone close to you has a problem and you [...]

  55. [...] read a great article the other day by Bob Burg about listening. Listening well is extremely difficult to do when someone close to you has a problem and you [...]

  56. awesome post from you! thanks again!

  57. Bob Burg said at 9:21 pm on

    Armando: Thank you. Very appreciated!

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