Capturing your Ace of Spades through Empathic Listening

Posted in: PSA Partnership

Many of you may remember hearing the news that Saddam Hussein (code name the Ace of Spades in operation Red Dawn) was finally captured by U.S military forces after being discovered in a hideaway buried on the grounds of a rural farmhouse in Tikrit, Iraq on December 13, 2003. What few of us know, is that the story behind his capture is credited to intel gathered from a man named Eric Maddox, who developed a completely new interrogation technique based off of empathic listening.

After a total of eight deployments and over 2,700 interrogations, Maddox retired from the military to spread the concept of empathetic listening in corporations, teaching them how to achieve new levels of trust in their culture. At a recent PSA Partnership webinar, Maddox shared, “The best and most distinct way to differentiate yourself is to be an empathic listener. No one can compete with that.” This is good news for local companies who go up against national, or international behemoths—especially in tough times like these. It’s within our influence as leaders to empower people, and if we’ll put empathic listening into practice, we can use it to capture our own personal or professional “Ace of Spades.”

“Listening is not about gathering more accurate information to make better decisions. That’s a secondary benefit. Listening with empathy is about gaining trust and seeking to understand.”

What is empathic listening?

Maddox shared that “Listening is not about gathering more accurate information to make better decisions. That’s a secondary benefit. Listening with empathy is about gaining trust and seeking to understand.” This rarity makes you stand out as different and makes people want to associate with you. Empathy-based listening Is about building the deepest level of trust to forge relationships that last forever. You can have the best brand, be true to your word, and have a solid history, but if a client feels you’ll lump them in with all of your other customers and don’t really care about them as an individual, you’re no better than your competition.

6 categories of distraction

According to Maddox, our brains hear faster than someone can talk, so we get bored and fill the extra capacity with mental distractions. In order to master empathic listening, Maddox has identified six areas of distractions (outlined below) that must be acknowledged and overcome. For more detailed information on the six categories, access this free downloadable.

  1. Everything you see hear, feel around you that is not relevant to the conversation
  2. Personal matters
  3. Unfamiliar nomenclature
  4. Biases or preconceived notions you have about the person speaking
  5. Thinking of your agenda or goals in the middle of a conversation
  6. Thinking about what you’re going to say next in a conversation

Putting these distractions behind you can increase your listening, but you need to do more. The way you escalate your listening and build connections is seeking to understand the perspective of the individual you’re talking to with regard to that topic of conversation at that time.

Applying empathic listening to various scenarios

Discussing controversial current events

Right now, we are living in an emotionally charged world. Many conversations are taking a divisive, and at times, volatile trajectory. We all know that one person’s “truth” is different than another’s, and facts and statistics can be used to tell different stories depending bias or interpretation. Focus instead on seeking to understand. Most blow-ups are a result of breakdowns in communication due to a lack of listening. When someone makes what you view to be a provocative statement, they want to have a discussion. Don’t seek to change, rebut, or shape someone’s view, just seek to understand them. If dialogue starts with a focus on listening, you’ll find that situations diffuse, and people who, in some cases, are completely polarized can come together.

Improving trust in prospect meetings

Prospects can tell when you’re coming in with an agenda—it can be repelling. As quickly as possible, introduce yourself, get to your point, and then ask them a question. Every time someone makes a statement, they drop clues or “breadcrumbs.” These could be details about themselves, their organization or problems they are facing. Actively look for the breadcrumbs. If you pick them up and use them to ask secondary questions using specific details, your connection and trust with that person will quickly grow.

Bridging generational gaps in the workplace

There may be hostility between the “old and new guard” within your company. Seek to listen and understand both sides. Avoid pitfalls like declaring that the old way doesn’t work. Let the proven merits of a new way do the talking. Rather than making enemies when trying to move in a new direction, find ways to use everybody as an asset. If you’ll become a trusted agent for change, both sides will come to you, and you can use that power to unify.

Gaining trust remotely

With so many people working remotely, there’s a belief that your ability to connect is stifled. Trust isn’t about language or physical contact. Any barriers you’re facing can be shattered within moments if you’ll just listen with empathy. Don’t make it about yourself, and don’t let a virtual connection be an excuse for not forging a human connection.

Body language

There are lots of sources that will tell you how you ought to look to give the impression you are listening. Rather than obsessing about all that, recognize that body language is the fruit of good listening—become an empathy-based listener, and positive, engaged body language will follow. And don’t get hung up in someone else’s body language (or lack thereof) because it will distract you from receiving their message.

Build lasting partnerships

Empathic listening is the tool by which we create genuine trust with people in a matter of moments rather than years. If we can accept that we’re inherently bad listeners, learn what distracts us, and make a commitment not to be selfish in conversation, empathy-based listening can change every situation. Every time someone makes a statement, there’s a breadcrumb. Don’t hurry past it. Pick it up and discover more. Ultimately, people just want to be heard with no distractions, and providing that space is a differentiator.

Want to keep the leadership conversation going? Keep an eye out for our next event invitation or contact me at

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