Empathy is a fundamental aspect of humanity and key to effective leadership. It’s a skill that allows leaders to understand the perspectives of the people they work with – and, it encourages increased productivity and a positive workplace culture.
Practicing empathy leads to more meaningful relationships, stronger connections in the workplace and to better health and quality of life. And that’s something we all want, isn’t it?
The role of a leader is to understand people’s perspectives and emotions in order to build relationships based on trust and understanding. While this seems to be an honourable undertaking and the right thing to do, practicing empathy can be a challenge for many of us; especially in the workplace.
Former US President, Barack Obama, is known for saying that the empathy deficit is a more pressing issue than the federal deficit (Honigsbaum, 2013). Willingness to see the world from a different angle and empathizing with the plight of others, can be a powerful catalyst for change. Simply put: Empathy makes life better in our families, in the workplace and in our communities.
Not just a Leadership Skill
Of course, empathy is not just important for leaders. Empathy is the foundation of all our relationships. It’s being aware of someone else’s feelings and needs, and the ability to feel with that person. Empathy is about connection; and we feel connected when we are heard, seen and valued by others. Connection is something all human beings need. After all, we are a social species, we thrive in community, and we are hard-wired, by nature, to care about others.
Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is showing concern for someone else. It can sound like this: “I’m sorry you are going through this” or “poor you, I’m sure it gets better soon”. Empathy shows concern too, but in a deeper way. Empathy is about being there, being in the moment with someone and feeling their anguish and hurt. The emphasis is on being “with” the person. It means being present, sharing and listening – not fixing or minimizing the problem or trying to make it better.
Empathy requires vulnerability – and vulnerability means showing yourself to others; being open about your feelings and emotions. Being vulnerable takes courage, and it’s through this vulnerability that we forge deep connections with others. Brené Brown, author, public speaker and research professor at the University of Houston, says that “without being vulnerable, there is no empathy”. To be empathic, you have to tap into your own feelings so that you can relate to and feel with another person. And that requires courage.
Looking at Empathy differently
In her Facebook live, Brené Brown shares an interesting aspect of empathy. She emphasizes that we cannot put down our lens, that it is in fact part of who we are and “fused to our face” (Brown, 2017). Our lens is the filter through which we see the world, and that filter is made up by things like our cultural background, our upbringing and societal norms.
That means, while we may not be able to exactly put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, practicing empathy means to believe in people’s stories and experiences as they tell them to us, without running them through our lens.
And in my experience, that is where the rubber hits the road. How often do we assume others see things exactly as we do? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Am I open to accept that the way others see the world and experience situations is just as real to them as my experiences are to me? I may not agree with what someone tells me. I may have been in a similar situation and had a totally different experience. Yet, can I accept the story at face value – just as the person is telling it to me?
The good News: Empathy can be learned
Let’s look at how you can put empathy into action. According to Theresa Wiseman, there are four skills that ladder up to empathy:
Perspective taking: that means; believing someone else’s story without running it through your own lens. That person’s truth might not be your truth. Be curious about how others see things and learn about their experiences. Understand that how other people see the world is as personal and real to them as your experience is to you.
Non-judgment: Staying out of judgment is hard because judging is something we do all the time, often without noticing it. As soon as you judge, you close yourself off to other ideas and ways of looking at things. Instead, keep an open mind and suspend judgment for a little while. Ask questions and find out more about the other person’s experience. Asking questions is a great way to show you truly care and want to understand.
Recognizing emotions: Being attuned to those around you, being able to pick up on someone’s feeling and sensing if something is up. And then, communicating these emotions back. This means acknowledging what someone is going through instead of rushing in to give advice. You could say: “I can see you are in a tough place, that must be really hard”.
Empathy doesn’t mean that you always have to agree with other people or change what you believe. It means being in tune with what others are going through and being willing to acknowledge their thoughts and concerns.
Empathy is a choice we can all make – Make it yours!
Honigsbaum, M. (2013). Barack Obama and the empathy deficit.
Brown, B. (2017). We need to keep talking about Charlottesville.