Leadership and Empathy

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While learning about Emotional Intelligence, many people find it difficult to understand why empathy is an important competency for leadership. Some people proudly proclaim that they don’t have much empathy, while others roll their eyes about this “warm and fuzzy” virtue.

But what people fail to realize is that when we show lack of empathy in our daily lives, it serves as a roadblock not only to our relationships but also to our coaching abilities.

Empathy is the ability to read other people and see things from their perspective.

It involves tuning into body language, facial expression, posture and tone. When we show empathy we “hear” the whole message both verbally and non-verbally. We work to understand rather than projecting our own interpretation of reality on them.

You need empathy to listen actively and to be able to offer sincere verbal or nonverbal input while you are listening. It’s gaining a truer understanding of the message by putting yourself in the speaker’s position.

In the book Primal Leadership, Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, the authors Daniel Goldman, Richard Boyatzis and Anne McKee, define empathy in the following way:

“Empathy doesn’t mean a kind of “I’m okay, you’re ok mushiness. It doesn’t mean that leaders should adopt other people’s emotions as their own and try to please everybody. That would be a nightmare—it would make action impossible. Rather, empathy means taking employee’s feelings into thoughtful consideration and then making intelligent decisions that work those feelings into the response.”

The speaker in a conversation easily notices lack of empathy.

For example, have you ever been in a conversation in which the other person seemed to be hearing and receiving what you are saying, but you were left wondering if s/he really cared? What about when you were in the middle of expressing your thoughts and the listener verbally began reacting judgmentally to what you were saying without letting you finish? How about when you are talking and the listener begins to look away or past you?

Each of these examples shows the receiver going through the motions without sincerity or respect. Empathy has happened when the speaker walks away from the conversation feeling respected and understood.

As a leader, you are able to create a powerful connection when you obtain an accurate understanding of the speaker’s message. This connection enables you to move the conversation productively forward.

You can address the speaker’s concerns as you understand them (by getting clarification, if needed) and perhaps persuade the speaker to consider other points of view. In doing so, the speaker is challenged to dig deeper, find new solutions, better formulate their original idea, etc.

Leaders who are approachable are more likely to be informed of both positive and negative information. To increase your empathy skills use the following methods:

  • Learn to read body language.
  • Notice facial expressions.
  • Listen for emotion in voice tone, pitch and speed of speech.
  • Seek to understand the duties of others and the challenges they face.
  • Inquire. If something that they are saying seems off to you—ask, “That’s interesting, tell me more about that.”
  • Intentionally listen for all aspects of the message.
  • Respect others, even people with whom you disagree.
  • Be accessible.
  • Invite others to share their issues–Don’t shoot the messenger when they do.
  • Use eye contact.
  • Avoid remarking until the person has fully completed their thoughts.

Developing and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships is essential for today’s leader. When we engage with empathy, we are motivated to pay attention from a multi-dimensional standpoint.

Empathic responses enable leaders to build trust, show sincerity, create dynamic teams and grow their people.