Being a good leader requires a proprietary blend of hard skills and soft skills. And while we often focus on the hard/technical skills, it’s just as important to develop the softer ones. Because it’s within this realm that great leadership is forged.
In particular, there’s one soft skill that we must lend greater attention. I’m talking about empathy, of course. And regardless of whether you consider yourself highly empathetic, or you aren’t even sure of what the term means, there’s room for improvement.
What is Empathy?
Let’s begin by understanding what empathy is (and what it’s not).
According to Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and an empathy advisor to the United Nations, “It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.”
Krznaric is also quite clear that we should not confuse it with the Golden Rule, which says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As others have famously pointed out over the course of history, everyone has different tastes and desires. If you do to others what you want them to do to you, you might actually damage the relationship. Empathy is about uncovering a person’s different tastes and then operating through that lens.
Sympathy is about feeling pity or compassion for someone whose circumstances you don’t fully understand. Empathy is about putting yourself in that person’s shoes and understanding the situation from their perspective.
4 Tips for Becoming More Empathetic
It’s fairly easy to be sympathetic. If you see one of those sad TV commercials about homeless puppies that need a loving family, you’re going to feel sympathy. Or if one of your employees is hurt in a car accident, a sympathetic response is going to come naturally. But it takes more effort to be empathetic. This is something you have to cultivate. Here are some pointers for doing so:
1. Learn to Actually Listen
Most people think they’re pretty good listeners, when they’re not actually listening at all. They may hear the words coming out of someone’s mouth, but that’s about it. Nothing of substance is getting relayed on an emotional level.
Empathetic leaders are good listeners. They actually embrace what other people are saying, rather than thinking about what their next statement will be. When you truly open your ears, eyes, and heart to understand what the person is saying, everything falls into place.
2. Be Fully Present
“When an empathetic leader speaks with someone, you’ll never catch them glancing at their watch or scanning the room or checking their phone,” executive leadership coach Lolly Daskal writes. “It’s simple: When someone is speaking, listen. If they’re expressing their feelings, be there with them. Concentrate on putting yourself in their shoes and think of ways you can be supportive.”
Being fully present is more difficult than you think – especially when you’re talking to someone on the phone and you have your computer in front of you. It’s easy to multi-task and disengage. Force yourself to be 100 percent there!
3. Watch Body Language
When you’re engaging with someone in a face-to-face manner, watch and study body language. Empathetic leaders know that nonverbal communication is sometimes more important than the verbal portion.
Is the person making eye contact? Are they fidgeting? Do they appear anxious and nervous? Are they relaxed? Different body language tells you different things. Combine these nonverbal elements with what they’re saying, and you’ll get a better idea for what people are going through and feeling in the moment.
4. Get Personal
It’s nearly impossible to be empathetic – at least fully – if you don’t know someone on a personal level. As a leader, one of the best things you can do is get to know the people you’re leading. Take an employee to lunch or grab two or three people and start a book club. Have meetings where the sole purpose is to explore topics outside of work. The more you know about someone’s personal life and experiences, the easier it is to be empathetic.
Seek Steady Improvement
You won’t become an empathetic leader overnight. This is a soft skill that requires years of practice and cultivation. But you can become more empathetic. It’s all about seeking steady, incremental improvement. And when you combine this newfound skill with your other technical skills, you’ll discover a whole new world of leadership opportunities emerge.