Adaptive Leaders: Empathy

When connecting to other people, effective adaptive leaders will not only express accurate empathy, but will let that empathy lead them into the conversation. To understand how to lead with empathy, we must first understand empathy – what it is and what ti is not.

Empathy.  A core feature of emotional intelligence (unpacked in a future post – stay tuned), empathy is a critical habit of mind for the successful leader.  Some refer to empathy as a skill, and it does present itself through specific skills.  Yet empathetic skills without an empathetic habit of seeing people and understanding their situations can quickly turn into manipulation.  Empathy works only when it is both a habit of mind and a practiced skill, for it requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things from the perspective of the other person.

Some have defined empathy as “putting yourself in the shoes of another,” or as “being able to identify and understand the emotional frame of the other person.”  While certainly such understandings are in varying degrees important, it does no one any good if we understand a person’s emotional frame yet they do not know we understandIn order for empathy to be present and effective, it must be expressed to the other person.  To be able to comprehend the emotions behind what the other person is expressing, and to accurately reflect that comprehension to the other in a way that demonstrates that we heard their words and their emotions is true empathy.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” – Brene Brown

Not empathy. To say “I know how you feel” is, of course, not empathy; it is rude and insulting.  No one knows how another feels, even if they have experienced remarkably similar circumstances. To say such a thing is to make little of the experience of the other.  To explain how we went through a similar experience is just as inappropriate, for that makes the conversation about us, not the other person.  To say anything like “I feel so sorry for you in this” is sympathy but not empathy.  Sympathy is of some value in some situations, but more often is not useful.

Studies have indicated that about half of the work of connecting with another person in a high-concern situation is empathy.  Interestingly, whether empathy is present is determined within the first 30 seconds of an encounter.  Effective leaders will learn to lead into an engagement with empathy.  We do that by responding to what we see and hear in the opening moments.  The tone of voice, the facial expression, the body positioning and attitude may give us what we need to reach out with empathy and start the engagement in the most productive manner possible.

Lead with empathy. To lead into a conversation with empathy and establish the empathy benefits in the first 30 seconds, we must understand the non-verbals of caring. How we look at the other, approach them, engage with them in their space are all important moments. Appropriate touch may be useful, but remember that people under stress or traumatic impacts may not want to be touched. A calm and quieting voice is important. Non-directive acknowledgement is also important in recognizing the hurt, pain, loss, anger, or fear in the other.

Our first words are important. “This must be terribly difficult for you right now.” “I cannot imagine the pain (fear, terror, anger, emptiness) you are feeling in this.” “I am guessing this has been really hard for you.” All such expressions convey empathy. These types of lead-ins to a conversation can help to communicate safety, understanding, and helpful intent from the very start. Choosing well how to begin your conversation may determine much of the outcome.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia

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