Empathy — which Greater Good Magazine defines as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling” — is often perceived as a soft skill in business. But there’s nothing soft about it. I believe it takes a strong leader to express empathy.
Empathetic leaders are able to put themselves in the position of employees, peers and customers and to connect at a level that can help them understand motivations and desires. This skill can enable leaders to reach positive outcomes in negotiations, win sales, inspire performance and nurture future leaders.
Having had the opportunity to work, connect and collaborate with a wide variety of leaders from all different areas, I’ve seen firsthand the difference between leading with empathy and leading without it. I’ve seen businesses fall apart because a member of the management team just didn’t take the time to simply listen. I’ve seen amazing cultures collapse due to a lack of empathy and the ability and willingness to support employees who need it. I’ve also seen the power that empathy has to grow a company. I’ve personally experienced growth as I practice more and more empathy in my daily interactions. It’s a skill that I look for when hiring anyone and when I’m looking to partner with other entrepreneurs.
As a skill, empathy involves scanning data, sorting it and analyzing it for essential information and cues to be able to understand and identify others’ thoughts and feelings. The data isn’t numbers or charts; rather, it’s observational and input data: how people respond to feedback, how they process information, the ways they work and what type of personality they have. I make sure that everyone we onboard takes a personality test so that I and everyone on the team understand how each person needs to receive feedback and the best way to communicate with them.
Empathy is different from sympathy, which is caring about and understanding the suffering or plight of others. Empathy is a fundamental construct of relationship building, which itself is a key facet of effective leadership.
To improve your ability to create shared vision and direction and inspire your stakeholders to take action, you may need to develop empathy. Fortunately, empathy skills can be learned and enhanced. Here are four simple methods to practice more empathy in your leadership.
1. Be Available
Being available doesn’t mean you need to be reachable at all hours, answer your emails within minutes or immediately respond to social media comments. It refers to being emotionally available to your employees, peers and customers. Put down your phone, and make eye contact. Take a personal interest, and show people that you genuinely care. Everyone has a need to be heard, and when you take the time to stop, listen and care, you can inspire people to reach positive outcomes.
2. Listen First
For a leader, most of the time just listening without interrupting and jumping into advice mode is a challenge. But one of the most critical traits of an empathetic leader is the ability to just sit (or stand) and actively listen. Sometimes, people just need to vent or talk through the issues at hand so they can gather their thoughts. Hold yourself back, and just listen. Many times, all I’ve done to show empathy to someone was listen, and just by lending my full attention, they felt valued enough to come up with a solution on their own.
When listening empathetically, make sure you aren’t quick to dismiss someone’s concerns before hearing the whole issue. Wait your turn to talk, and don’t interrupt, as there may be a key piece of information just around the corner. Allow people to own the time they have with you, and make them feel like it’s their moment when they have your undivided attention. To put it simply, just listen first.
An extra note of advice: Sometimes you’re going to need to judge how much time you can spend listening. As I stated in the previous section, being available to people doesn’t mean you always have to be available; you don’t have to commit to listening unceasingly. Set your boundaries, and be realistic. Try to eliminate distractions in order to make your time efficient. If someone broaches a topic with you at the wrong time, or you’ve been listening for a significant amount of time already, wait for a pause to interject, summarize what the person has shared with you and suggest a specific future time to pick things up so you can come to a solution.
3. Be Accountable
When problems arise, people often need to confide in someone to help work out the issues. Being empathetic goes one step further than being available and listening: To demonstrate that you’re truly interested in the person and the problem, be accountable by following up. Check in to see how things are going and whether the problem has been resolved. Be available and listen again. Offer alternative ideas or suggestions if the problem hasn’t been resolved. Empathy involves an accountability loop of checking in until the problem has been resolved or the person is feeling better.
4. Lead By Example
As a leader in your business, you’re being watched. Your stakeholders, whether they’re employees or customers, are observing how you lead and are constantly basing their confidence and trust in you on your actions. How does this relate to empathy? It’s simple. People portray what they see, and if they see you taking the time to be available, listen and understand and value the thoughts and feelings of others, they’ll likely be inspired to do the same. So lead with empathy, and you’ll be teaching others to do the same.
Empathy is no longer a soft skill, but it can be a hard skill to master. Take the time to learn empathy, and you’ll likely see a big change in your business through more trust, honesty and openness.