I meet a fair number of business leaders who say they are empathy-challenged. Empathy is the ability to recognize and identify the emotions being experienced by another person. It’s one of the five components of Emotional Intelligence. Because it enables others to feel like you connect with them, it is an important skill set for leaders who want to create an inclusive work environment. Showing peers and those who report to you that you get them, you understand their experience, even if what they’re going through is something you’ve never experienced, builds positive mutually beneficial connections.
Here is the starting point. The five basic human emotions are love, joy, sadness, anger and fear. You may be able to recognize those emotions easily. But, it important to know that all feeling states are derived from each of these five. For example, frustration is on the anger continuum. Compassion is on the love continuum. Anxious is on the fear continuum.
To improve your ability to demonstrate empathy, when you speak with people, tune in to their emotional state as best you can. Begin to acknowledge what you imagine they’re feeling. “Sounds like that made you happy.” That’s on the joy continuum. Or, “You seem really frustrated with the situation.”
Practice listening at this level, the emotional level, and watch how the speaker opens up and tells you more as they experience you demonstrating understanding – not agreement – but awareness of how they’re feeling.
In what might seem counterintuitive to the traditional top down management approach, power comes from listening more and talking less. Empathy is at the heart of this notion and there are good business reasons to brush up. People in leadership roles are often compelled to direct and educate at every turn. Taking up the defensive position that broadcasts they know more than others is an antiquated approach to dealing with today’s workforce. This leadership style stunts potential innovation and creativity, especially within teams of younger folks like millennials or diverse employees.
If you’re cut from the authoritarian management cloth, changing will require discipline. But if you consciously choose to open up your mind by listening and validating rather than assuming you have all the answers, you’ll release the flow of positive energy and much-needed idea sharing.
For more on the value of empathy in the office, check out the white paper “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership” from the Center for Creative Leadership.