Empathy: A Critical Leadership Skill

If you think the words leadership and empathy are contradictory, then think again.

Developing empathy is the top priority for over 70% of my clients. One client made the following statement in his first session, “I’ve gotten feedback from my wife, my manager, and my customers that I need to be more empathetic. I’m not wired that way, but I want to learn about empathy and try to get better at it.” Bless his heart! That’s a true leader – someone who accepts feedback gracefully, shares their vulnerability, and is open to change.

Yes, we are all wired a certain way based on culture, experiences, beliefs, and our peer group. Yet, every one of us can benefit from a little rewiring.  As a trauma survivor, I can honestly tell you that rewiring IS possible and it’s a MUST if you want to be a more influential leader.  Here’s a tip: even if it is increased revenue or profit you’re after, developing empathy will get you there quicker!

“[Empathy is] awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns.” – Daniel Goleman, in Working with Emotional Intelligence

Empathy is intuitive and it comes easier for some than for others, but it’s also something you can work on.

Here are some things you can do to get better at it.

Practice active listening skills. This means listening for true understanding, not with your own agenda.  Try to be judgement free or as neutral as possible, don’t interrupt, and show a sincere interest in what the other person is saying.  How many times, while listening to someone, are you already formulating a response in your head?

Ask open-ended questions. These are questions where the other person cannot answer with a yes or no.  For example, there is a difference between, “Did you have a good day today?” and “What happened during your day today?” The first question is closed, and the second question is open.  When was the last time you asked an open-ended question?

Embrace a “Beginner’s Mind.” In other words, act like you’re hearing this topic for the first time.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, take their perspective, like you’re right there with them.  Try this one time with one person and it will change the way you communicate forever!

Read between the lines by noticing emotional cues. If you’re truly aware and listening, you will uncover a deeper meaning in what the person is saying. How can you practice this today? You may not be wired for empathy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t develop it. Practice will help you build that muscle and soon empathy will come naturally.  One way to know is to ask for feedback along the way! My challenge to you is to ask one person for feedback about your level of empathy.

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