The Role of Empathy in Leadership

The most powerful way to use empathy is as a tool to better understand the people we work with, the people we interact with, and the people we are trying to serve. This will allow us to avoid the trap of “good intentions” that don’t produce good results, but rather strip away our own perspectives and reactions and really hear what is being said to us. Cultivating empathy – true empathy – is an essential attribute of the modern leader. But empathy can often be confused or conflated with sympathy or “I want to help people,” and even worse, is often written off as a characteristic that is inherent within people, and not something that one can hone and practice.

An interesting piece written in the New York Times recently argued that people choose how empathetic they want to be, and are generally more empathetic to people or groups they identify with. With that in mind, as you are practicing cultivating your empathy, it’s important to recognize if you are withholding empathy unconsciously because you are interacting with a person or group that is unfamiliar.

According to scholars there are three types of empathy – affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Affective empathy is our emotional response to other people’s situation, or the feelings that are roused in us when we hear of another person’s happiness or struggles. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is our intellectual ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions. Compassionate empathy combines both emotional and intellectual understanding someone else’s feelings, but it requires a next step, which is, when appropriate, being moved to take action.

There are a lot of simple ways to practice empathy that you can do on a regular basis.

Active (Radical) Listening: One of the most obvious and sadly most under-used ways to practice empathy is through active or radical listening. This is listening with the intent to understand and to actually hear what the person is saying without injecting your own interruptions, reactions, or thoughts. When practicing radical listening, work on listening instead of waiting to speak. Catch yourself when you start to think of things to say in response and try to clear your mind so you can really hear what the person is saying. Don’t jump to give advice, play the devil’s advocate, or make excuses. For the moment, just listen. Eventually, when it comes time for you to talk, allow yourself to be open and vulnerable.

Cultivating Curiosity: Curiosity is a great way to expand your understanding of the world and work on your empathetic tendencies. Doing this requires asking real, thoughtful questions with a genuine desire to understand on a deep level. This also requires going out of your comfort zone, to explore outside your scope of reference. This could be talking to people you don’t normally talk to, reading things you don’t normally read, and going places you don’t normally go.

Finding shared identity and values: Empathy is very much about finding common humanity, about recognizing that in our own different ways, we are all just trying to get by. Even when you disagree with someone, trying to identify what values and identity you share will help you to find common ground and bring you closer together. In mediation and negotiation, using this form of empathy can help people understand where the other person is coming from, even if they don’t agree.

Even more than disagreement, there is also an important reason to empathize with your “enemies.” Oftentimes, assumptions and miscommunication lead to conflicts that don’t need to be. I was in a national security meeting recently in which someone said during a moment of epiphany “we wonder why single women with young children in foreign countries pick up their lives to move and join ISIS. They must be radical terrorists. But could it be that the current reality of their lives is so dire that joining ISIS actually offers an improvement to their current situation?” And many times that answer is “yes.” Rather than vilifying, blaming, or incarcerating, trying to understand the root of why a person is acting the way that they are is a good way to get to the root of an issue, rather than reacting to its outcome.

Empathy is the opposite of the golden rule – it’s not assuming that everyone wants the same thing as you and then doing unto them what you would want done to you. It’s listening and understanding what they need and want, outside of yourself.

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