Have you ever had a friend, teacher, coach or parent exhibit total disregard for how you were feeling? Perhaps you excitedly shared an accomplishment with them, only to hear them “1-up” you or totally step-over what you just said as if it was no big deal. All of us have certainly felt the lack of empathy from these types of influential people in our lives. In fact, much to our chagrin, we may have been those people at times…..an not even known it.
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. Empathy is also the cornerstone of Social and Emotional Intelligence (S+EI) and the most easily recognized, especially when it is missing. If you want to raise the level of your S+EI, then empathy is the placed to start.
Empathy is not pity. Pity says “I feel your pain and fell sorry for you”. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy says “I have a feeling of care and concern for you and your pain and wish to see you better off”. Empathy says “I understand your pain (or other emotions) from your perspective and identify with you”. Simply put, a person skilled in empathy understands the emotional states of other people.
Empathy in action means thoughtfully integrating employees’ emotions with intelligent decision making. Consider the following contrast:
- The CEO of a growing and hectic business has a promising young team leader who just busted into his office without knocking to tell him about a “breakthrough” he’s made, and interrupts the CEO’s focused concentration. The CEO reacts by angrily reminding the young man of the “knock before you enter” policy, says “thanks” for helping him lose focus, and concludes with “that sounds good but I can’t think about it right now” and dismisses him. Before getting back to work, the CEO thinks to himself “all I need now is a screen door to hit him on the butt on his way out”.
- Another CEO experiences the same thing but pauses before responding. He first internally recognizes his own anger and frustration, which allows him to get a grip on it. His first external reaction is an expression of focused thought, attention and interest. Matching the young man’s excitement, he congratulates him on his discovery. Then shifting quickly to a serious demeanor, he let’s the young man know he want’s to give him and his idea the attention they deserve right, but will need some focused time and attention to in order to do so. He asks him to have his secretary schedule a time for them to meet as soon as possible. Before getting back to work, the CEO recalls a time when he himself did something similar…he can relate.
Disabuse yourself of the notion that being high in empathy is just for push-overs and the soft. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most effective leaders are highly empathetic, which allows them to read their people like a book.
As leader, being able to sense how others feel and understand things from their perspective gives you tremendous leverage. Empathy helps you know where people are coming from, what are their greatest needs and where are their pain points. Unless you know those things, you won’t be able to articulate a truly and inspirational vision that is going to resonant with them. At best, your message will fall flat. Even worse, your likely to go on blindly “getting stuff done” and remain oblivious to the stress level of those being tasked, especially your best performers.
Empathy, along with social skill, is the lynch-pin of your ability to manage relationships with others. It’s the cornerstone of your most basic, primal task as a leader: to prime positive emotions in your followers that sustains resonance and in turn inspires, motivates and empowers them to do great things.
How’s your empathy “muscle”? Are you content to be settled where you’re at our do you want (and need) more? The reality is that no matter how empathy-skilled we think we are, just about all of us could all use some work. The good news is that we can all improve and activities like the Empathy Exercise can help.
What’s your best next step here?