Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill after All

In his 2001 HBR article, “Leadership in a Combat Zone,” Lieutenant General William Pagonis, Director of Logistics during the Gulf War, wrote:

Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.

Put that way, empathy doesn’t sound quite so soft, does it?

I always thought I was an empathic person, but I wasn’t. I learned the hard way.  During my work as a leader and coach, I discoverd that empathy isn’t about being nice or tolerant. It’s not about feeling sorry for people or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s an act of relating in which you try to look at the world from the perspective of another person, a human being whose history and point of view are as complex as your own.

I know, it’s tremendously difficult, but it becomes much easier once you realize that for being empathic

  •  it’s not required to be nice and tolerant
  • it doesn’t involve you have to agree or step away from you own opinion
  • you don’t have to come up with a solution (This is nicely illustrated with this very funny video.  I’m sure you will recognize yourself.)
  • it certainly doesn’t mean setting people free form being accountable

Henry Ford once said that if there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and to see things from his or her point of view –as well as from one’s own.

In my classes I teach how to look at things from 3 different perspectives: your own, the perspective of the other and the perspective of an neutral observer. As you know, you only get depth an insight by looking at things from 3 different angles. It gives you a three-dimensional (rather than flat), and more realistic view.

But first things first. Let’s start with working on our two-dimensional skills: being empathic

To speed up your learning process in being a true empathic leader, adapt these 4 key behaviors in your leadership style:

  • Acknowledge that everyone sees the world trough his of her perspective.  Yes, their perspective is different from yours!  (Twenty people can witness the same event, but will all have their own version of what happened)
  • Don’t judge (there is no good or bad here)
  • Relate to what the other person is trying to tell you. Understand what they are struggling with by relating to an experience you had yourself. Connect to something in yourself that knows that feeling.
  • Communicate that you understand the other person’s feelings.
  • You don’t have to solve their problem or fix things,  just listen.
[/blockquote] In this animated video, Dr. Brené Brown clarifies the meaning of empathy by contrasting it with sympathy.

Feeling reluctant to actually do this?  Ask yourself what is standing in your way. And let me know! Next blog I will be writing on “what is keeping you from what you really want to do”. It would be nice to work with what is blocking you.

If you can relate to a person’s point of view — no matter what you think of it — you can more effectively lead him or her. Empathizing with your team, your boss, your coworkers, and your colleagues won’t make you a pushover — it’ll give you more power.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook. Thank you!

 Do you have any tips to add on becoming more empathic? Please leave a comment below.

Ann Baeke - Natural Leadership

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