This post is written by Kara Rising, associate and Emerging Leader Coach at Metcalf & Associates.
I want to start off this blog entry with two statements about empathy I believe to be true:
- Empathy is absolutely the most important skill to have if you are ever going to interact with people at work
- Even those of us who are not “warm and fuzzy” can become good at developing empathy.
I believe I am living proof of number two. Besides sharing my journey to developing empathy, I will share the five simple tips I’ve used to develop empathic responding, so you use them too.
I’ve received this feedback in the past:
- Your personality is like a punch in the face.
- People either absolutely love you or they absolutely hate you.
- You’re kind of an intense and direct person.
- You have a short fuse.
These are not qualities you would want in a therapist or coach, so it’s interesting I even went into coaching in the first place! However, through education and experience in working with people, I have effectively beat the insensitivity out of me – for the most part! Now, instead of challenging people, my first response is to empathize. This has changed how I view myself, and the comments I hear from others. So, even if you are known as a gruff manager who scares people, you too can learn to empathize and to be more effective. You just have to overcome your aversion to emotions.
Most of us are born with a capacity for empathy, some more than others, but it is also a skill that can be developed. Empathy is simply the ability for us to experience and understand the emotions of another person (although to a lesser degree). Empathy is the foundation of relationships. It is what allows us to connect with others, and is our greatest asset in communicating with co-workers, supervisors and subordinates.
No matter what type of a leader you are, if you can’t develop your empathy capacity you will not be able to develop your leadership capacity. Before I go on to explain some tips on empathy, I want to share an analogy my father once shared that has been one of the most helpful description of empathy.
You and your spouse are standing around a campfire. Suddenly the wind changes directions and the smoke begins to blow directly into your spouse’s face. He or she starts coughing, sputtering and commenting on how awful it is. (Now, at this point of the analogy I usually ask my clients, “What would you do in this situation?” And almost 100% of the time I get the same answer: “I’d tell my spouse to move!” Keeping in mind that this is an analogy to prove a point so therefore a bit exaggerated, I would then tell them that in terms of empathy that would not be considered the best response. Ok, now back to the analogy.) As you are watching your spouse cough in the direct line of smoke, you decide to step into the smoke and begin coughing, sputtering, and remark, “Gosh, this DOES suck. Why don’t we move to the other side of the fire?” The two of you move from the smoke and continue to have an enjoyable evening.
It sounds ridiculous, and it is a bit over the top for teaching’s sake, but it demonstrates an excellent point about empathy: you can’t help a person to move without first getting into the smoke too. People desire to feel understood and to feel there is someone who can relate to them. Without such it feels condescending and isolating.
Here are some practical tips on how to respond empathically:
1. Don’t interrupt
Allow the person to express emotions fully before responding. I know it’s hard sometimes to bite your tongue and keep quiet- but it’s a must if the person is to feel understood and heard (and then be open to listening to you).
2. Keep appropriate eye contact
Everyone knows when someone isn’t paying attention and thinking of other things. Keep your attention and focus on them while they speak, i. It shows you respect them and what they have to say.
3. Do NOT give advice
Nothing shuts someone down faster than getting unsolicited advice when he or she he or she did not ask for it and just wanted to connect. After you feel you have empathized appropriately and the person was able to fully express himself or herself him or herself, you can then ask if you can offer advice- but understand the person is allowed to say no.
4. Respond by acknowledging the emotion expressed, or if you are really good, unexpressed.
A simple formula to follow when you are just practicing is this: “You feel ______ because ______”. Be careful how you use this, it could easily be interpreted as mocking if not done well. Try practicing this at home or with a friend first before attempting this in more difficult situations. If you have average empathy skills, you can “read between the lines” and also begin to pull out emotions that haven’t been said and empathize with those.
5. Resist the urge to help.
This is a hard one- we want to reduce the other’s suffering but also want to reduce our own internal emotional reaction to the other person’s emotions. However, as helpful as you may think you are being, you are not. Resist the urge and just listen and respond with empathy statements.
Practice this at home periodically. Be a scientist and observe how the dynamics change within your relationships when you practice more empathic responding. Once you have a firmer handle on how to appropriately respond with empathy, you can then translate that into your working environment. Developing this skill in the workplace will help you grow and connect with your employees while simultaneously engaging them. I hope that you can use these tips to be even better leaders than you were yesterday.