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Empathic Leadership

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Author, Alex Mackenzie, 1/14

Who is a leader?

Everyone is a leader in some respects. Even if you’re not a formal manager with organizational chart lines of accountability, responsibility for performance appraisal, or an agent of the company duties, you’re still likely an informal leader. As such, you interact with people daily who you must influence and with whom cooperation is needed. You may need to get or give information, share resources, create plans, make presentations, or decide how to get certain things done.

As a formal leader, you do all the above, plus interact with people you manage. You delegate assignments, review performance, make decisions and correct course where needed, communicate change, set expectations, evaluate and authorize resource requests, and resolve conflicts between people.

In either role, when you initiate a professional interaction, remember: People literally can’t take care of business without getting their personal needs met. That’s where empathy comes in.

Empathy – really?

Empathy is one of our deepest fundamental psychological needs. It is the experience of being seen, heard, and understood. This primitive need is analogous to that of basic existence. As babies, we realize we exist through the “mirroring” we get from our caregivers, but the need for empathy doesn’t end as we reach adulthood, it is life long. Psychologically and symbolically, the need for empathy is as serious as life or death.

In the seminal business classic, The Fifth Discipline Field Book, author Peter Senge tells us, “Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to ‘hello’ in English, is the expression Sawu bona. It literally means, ‘I see you.’ If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhona, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.”

This illustrates the importance of being understood, seen, and acknowledged.

What if I’m too busy for empathy?

The necessity of contending with personal needs at work is an application of the axiom,

“ Sometimes you have to slow down to go fast.”

When there is a lack of empathy, things bog down. Arguments ensue. People get angry and defensive. The employee receiving a new assignment about which he feels unconfident digs his heels in. The direct report getting constructive feedback refuses to accept it. The intern you question about the status of a project gets defensive and you don’t get the information you need. Work stops. Investing the time in empathy will ultimately pay you back in dividends.

Can anyone do it?

Providing empathy is a skill. It’s a part of Emotional Intelligence (see Emotional Intelligence series), which can be developed.

At its core, empathy consists of acknowledging another person’s experience; including what the person is experiencing, and how they are experiencing it, emotionally. Sounds simple? It is – sort of.

You can provide the experience of empathy by using active listening – paraphrasing (saying in your own words) what another person is saying, focusing on the feeling and their perception of the situation. It works best when we keep it simple, but it’s not necessarily easy to be empathic when we are wrestling with our own feelings, are stressed, or in a hurry.

Some tips for providing empathy:

  • Remember: acknowledging someone’s experience doesn’t mean you agree.

  • Providing empathy requires that you put aside other agendas for the moment.

  • Ask the person whether you got it right. Nothing wrong with getting it wrong. This also gives them the chance to clarify what they’re really feeling.

  • Seek first to understand: don’t try to talk the person out of anything until you’ve confirmed your understanding.

  • If you’re having trouble identifying emotions, observe their non-verbal communication: tone, volume, gestures, and posture.

  • Keep it short. Longer dilutes the message.

  • In addition to avoiding problems, empathy also builds relationships and motivates people. You can build up “emotional capital” by providing empathy when situations are not escalated.

Next Steps:

Whatever their job title, people who have a talent for empathy are seen as natural leaders. Interested in building this skill as part of your effectiveness as a leader? By practicing at home, you can improve your empathic capability and also improve your family relationships.

To teach yourself something about emotional recognition, try watching a drama on TV with the sound off. Try guessing the actors' emotions by watching just their non-verbal cues: Facial expression, gestures, movements, posture. This can be a fun "game" to [play with friends or family. Another idea: try noticing your own emotions by paying attention to what's going on in your body. "My heart feels so full" . (emotion, joy!). My "head feels like it's going to explode" (stress, worry). "That sets my teeth on edge." (anger)

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