Empathy. What is it – and why is it a crucial skill of leaders?
“Empathy is the capacity to sense, and to respond with appropriate emotion and action to another’s emotion and thinking. It involves the ability to imagine what another person is experiencing from within the context of their mental, emotional and physical. “
Science reporter and psychologist Dan Goleman summarized three types of empathy and their importance to building strong, lasting relationships.
- Cognitive Empathy – the ability to be aware of, and use someone’s mental models, language and values as a means of strengthening connection and communication.
- Social Empathy – the capacity to sense what another person is feeling and reflect that in how we respond in emotion and action.
- Empathic Concern – the response of empathy to take action that supports another especially when they’re in stressful situations.
Goleman reinforced the importance of all three types of empathy to build strong, lasting relationships.
As an executive coach, I’ve seen how critical empathic leadership is to the success of leaders – especially those that want a work culture that keeps top talent and sustains transformation and growth. Based on decades of coaching leaders, I find that empathy is one of the most important and overlooked skills of leadership. Without it, leaders can mistake positional authority for a more potent power – influence. When leaders harness the power of empathy, they more quickly gain trust, build loyalty and create clarity and confidence in those they lead. This allows for higher performance and reaching shared goals.
Most importantly, when leaders are empathetic, they’re able to unleash the energy in others because they feel valued and that we believe in them. Empathy helps reinforce our miraculous humanity.
I’ve found in coaching leaders that growing even a little empathy goes a long way. It takes some practice and can make a big difference. If you’re not naturally gifted with showing empathy (as is the case with many leaders), you must first develop it – by starting first with yourself.
It’s important to be curious in our awareness. It is only when we can accept our own truth, that we can address it, and the changes we want to make.
When we’re able to compassionately see and respond to our own needs, we’re more able to sense and respond to others in the same way.
-What’s been your mood or feelings lately?
-What feelings are you projecting on to others through your behaviors?
-What are these feelings telling you?
-What actions can best move you into or away from what you want?
-From an empathetic point of view, what do we know is needed and the best and right choice for ourselves?
-Are we committed to the actions needed to make this happen?
Empathy allows us to show people they matter to us a people – beyond the transactional agenda of shared work. Are we seen by those we lead as empathetic?
What evaporates in the heat of work interactions isn’t our feelings – it’s our ability to be fully aware and present so we can take in the whole picture of what ‘s happening for others. As we act in our own empathy practice, we need to believe that empathy is a valuable part of our leadership – and lean into the behaviors that show it. So how is this group or team feeling? What are the dynamics of the energy in the space you’re meeting? What messages are being sent beyond words? When our heart, gut and mind focus on others in any situation, more information is available for our consideration and we can choose to respond wisely. This allows relationships to deepen and influence to expand as other perspectives are being considered– which allows new possibilities to emerge.
Empathetic leadership requires us to:
1. Notice how others are showing up.
2. Be curious about it.
3. Respectfully acknowledge what we’re seeing through our communications.
4. Listen with open mind and heart to others’ responses.
5. Try to feel, see, and think through the lens of who they are vs. within our mental framework.
Empathy doesn’t require more of our time – it requires more of our attention.
Recently, a client wanted to work on empathy at work as a tool for leading with greater impact at a more senior level. In coaching, she tasked herself with showing empathy at home for two weeks, and then at work for the following two weeks. In the period of a month, she experimented with her empathetic leadership. At our following coaching session, she was delighted and bewildered: her family was actively doing more together and more easily than ever before. At work, she started doing the same.
Here are 5 Steps she used:
- Breathe Deeply. Connect with your gut, heart, confidence and courage. Bring attention to your intuition.
- Listen Fully. Notice what others are sharing and showing, as well as what might be missing.
- Ask Questions. Explore other’s ideas before telling them your agenda.
- Seek to Understand. Explore what others feel and mean. Don’t assume.
- Acknowledge the Need. Always affirm and validate feelings, and offer your concerns, ideas or position with respect.
After a few more months of practice in seeing through another’s eyes, she reported being invited into more meetings, gaining deeper confidences, and contributing more to others’ growth. It was a win – win. Her team’s energy and ideas increased, her peers were more willing to share more information and her executive team requested her input with greater frequency.
Empathy is a quality we can develop if we practice.
Like any skill, it gets easier and eventually becomes a natural competency. I believe that we can all develop empathy. It’s a skill of leaders that truly want to bring out the best in themselves and those they lead.
As was said by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “ You never really know a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If you want coaching or more information for developing empathy for leaders, get in touch here: krmoore.com/connect.