Listen With Empathy

Ask questions that come from the desire to understand.

One recent evening, I joined an informal gathering of people at an East Memphis restaurant and bar. Most people there, who were celebrating the start of a business program, were locals. But, there was one out-of-town visitor everyone wanted to talk to. Even though I tend to be somewhat unassertive at events like this, I made my way to the small group that included this visitor. I listened to her, and asked questions to help me really understand what she was saying. Because of her interesting and timely experiences and because of the largeness of spirit that brought her to town, it was easy and natural for me to do so. I really wanted to hear her story and understand what drove her.

We ended up talking for at least 10 minutes. When I realized I needed to stop monopolizing this in-demand guest, I apologized and stepped back so she could talk to others. Instead of intimating that our conversation had simply been one more task to fulfill, she told me that it had been one of the best conversations of her life, and she gave me a quick hug! After meeting just 10 minutes earlier! What happened?

Watch almost any conversation. Watch yourself during your next conversation. What is the key feature? Interruptions. The person not talking waits till the one who is talking has to take that inevitable breath and then they jump in. Each person gauges success by the words they got in before being interrupted. I believe that most conversations like this are missed opportunities.

The missed opportunities are to change someone’s life, to change your life, to set an example for people you work with, and to increase our interconnectedness. You (we) can’t afford to miss even one more of these opportunities. The next time you are in a conversation, try what I did at that bar: listen with empathy.  

Let the person you talk with breathe, think, and realize their words are actually being listened to by someone who wants to understand them, who cares. Most people desperately want to be listened to and be understood.

Listening with empathy doesn’t mean not talking. It means asking questions that come from the desire to understand, from your heart. Those are the genuine questions that lead to deeper meaning and not the easily detected fake questions that are simply exercises in keeping yourself from talking or designed to take unfair advantage.

How does listening with empathy help build high-growth-potential startups? Those startups need resilient teams in which the members understand and appreciate each other so they can work together and survive the stretches of hardships that all startups face. They must develop a deep understanding of the customers in their target markets if they want to design and deliver innovative products and services that meet those customer’s needs. Finally, startups and their stakeholders that model this behavior help establish it as the norm in their community.

The connections and trust that will organically grow from this are the soil that a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to take root. Such an ecosystem, in turn, supports a virtuous cycle that improves the odds that other teams form and grow their companies and pass their success on to others.

If you are an entrepreneur, or aspire to be one, the next time you talk to someone and listen deeply, and with empathy, let me know how it went. You can contact me at Let’s change the world and nurture our ecosystem one conversation at a time.

Kevin Boggs is Assistant Vice President, Technology Transfer, and Interim Executive Director, FedEx Institute of Technology, University of Memphis. B.S., Florida; Ph.D., Medical University of South Carolina; M.B.A., University of Memphis. Provides education, research, technology commercialization, entrepreneurship support, and corporate engagement. Clients include Crews Ventures Lab, Office of Technology Transfer, and Memphis Research and Innovation Expo. Member, EDGE/Brookings Metropolitan Business Plan team.


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