There was a time I thought of leadership requiring you to stand tall and stand fast. To be able to quickly detach from your feelings and the feelings of others. To be more detached than attached as a leader. Have you ever been there?
Recently, my friend Brandon lent me a book called A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule The World by Daniel Pink. In the book he discusses the differences between right brained and left brained people. One of the chapters dealt with empathy and leadership.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient (in fiction writing) being (via Wikipedia).
What does this mean to you? When you feel empathy, you’re able to relate to others. Seeing and feeling what they’re feeling.
Ever been in a room where one person yawns and you suddenly feels the urge to yawn? Ever want to cry while reading a tragic story? Ever feel joy while someone relates their story of success?
These feelings are related to empathy.
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
— Henry David Thoreau
Why Empathy Is Important In Leadership
Great leaders need to be able to know what their followers are feeling. They need to be able to look around and get a sense of the state of others.
Leaders also need to be able to sense when programs and projects are going well. This can be done through empathy.
When you can begin to relate and feel what others are feeling, you’ll gain a sense of the state of your team. Whether your team is doing well or if they need encouragement.
If you’re leading with empathy, these trends will be easier to spot.
Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.
— Alice Miller
Learning To Be An Empathic Leader
Don’t fret if empathy doesn’t come easy to you. It’s something I’m still learning. And you can learn to be empathic as well!
Now, empathy tends to come easier for females than males. Women tend to be wired a bit different in this area as they’re normally more nurturing and in touch with their emotions.
This doesn’t mean men shouldn’t be empathic. It will just take more work for most men to increase their capacity for empathy.
To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.
— Stephen Covey
Here are four suggestions to become a more empathic leader:
- Avoid the need to be right: We all like to be right but when we fight to be right, we begin to shut off our empathy receptors. Instead, be open to being wrong and letting the other person be right. Begin looking at their point of view and why it may be the better answer. This will allow you the chance to feel what the other person is feeling. Opening you up to the opportunity to feel empathy with someone else.
- Break down your emotional barriers: Over time we’ve built up walls and created barriers around ourselves. We say it’s for our own protection and that may be true. However, you’ll need to break through your emotional barriers and let others in. By becoming more open with others, you’ll have the chance to see how others see and react to the real you. By being emotionally open, you’ll begin to feel feelings you may have never experienced before. Empathy may be creeping in at this point.
- Take notice of others emotions: Take time to sit in a crowded area. Watch as people stream through the building. Look at their facial expressions. Focus on their body language. What things can you learn? Can you spot a person who looks upset? Do you see smiling and happy people? Are there any other smaller clues to a person that could help you determine their emotions? Look for these things and make notes. You’ll eventually create a depository in your mind you can go to to determine people’s emotions.
- Humanize or personalize others: Sometimes we block others by dehumanizing or depersonalizing them. We stop viewing them as equals or peers and instead we see others as objects. This needs to stop. Look for ways to see others in a real light. Human and frail just like you. Allow them to feel and be imperfect. You’ll be able to better empathize with them when you see them as equals.
Leaders need to be willing to connect emphatically with others. When you’re able to relate to others, you’ll be able to lead from a better position. One of mutual feeling.
Question: How can you apply empathy to your life? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.