Compassionate Emptiness. Don’t Solve, Just Listen.
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?