Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.