Tag Archives: empathy

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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A Systems-Thinking Leader

An integral skill of the modern leader is the ability to be a systems-thinker. It is important to use systems-thinking when developing new policies, creating new processes, developing new programs, and addressing current problems and challenges.

Working on cultivating your systems-thinking requires stepping back and constantly taking a holistic approach, where you identify and map out the system you are navigating in order to understand the bigger picture. People, processes, and structures all exist and interact within systems, and it is understanding how each effects and influences the other that will help you to gain a greater understanding for an issue at hand.

This practice can be incredibly hard as we navigate complex and often times convoluted systems that sometimes demand immediate response, but taking the time to understand the whole context is often the first and most important step in intentionally practicing systems-thinking.

Systems-thinking and people

Systems-thinking requires taking a human-centered approach, since at the end of the day it is humans who create and must navigate systems. You must not only be asking questions like who are the stakeholders? But also, when making decisions, setting up businesses, policies, or projects, you should also be looking at the greater whole, asking – what would it be like to be a person living with a disability needing to navigate this system? A woman? Someone from a minority background? Someone with children? People from varying socio-economic backgrounds? Someone living with a chronic or terminal disease? Someone who identifies as LQBTQ? People who observe different religions?

Putting people at the center of your system analysis is a good way to make sure that they aren’t forgotten. It’s strange how easy it can be to map out a system and completely forget the people that the system effects. When you look at plans that are carefully organized but impossible to realistically execute, you can see where the people aspect of the thinking was left out of the equation.

Empathy is a skill that will be addressed in a later article, but it’s important to note that working on cultivating and enhancing your tendency towards empathy is a good way to make sure that you never forget about the “people experience” part of your work.

Systems-thinking and addressing problems

Our world has increasingly become one of instant gratification, creating Band-Aid solutions to try to immediately solve superficial parts of the problems we are confronting. But very rarely does a problem exist in a vacuum, and without thinking about how this specific problem plays into the larger whole, you are only creating, at best, a temporary fix to a more systemic issue.

To practice systems-thinking when addressing a challenge or problem, you need to both look back at the root of the problem, and understand the many different factors that contributed to its manifestation, recognizing that is a part of an overall system and did not occur in isolation. Then, you need to practice “emerging future” thinking, exploring different ways to address the problem as part of the system as opposed to reacting to a specific part, and brainstorming what outcomes those different interventions might have, both in the short and long term. By not taking this approach, you run the risk of short-sightedness and generating unintended consequences.

This is the first of what will be several pieces about systems-thinking, and tools will soon be available to help you cultivate your systems-thinking approach.

Practice: As you are either designing new systems (processes, policies, etc), create a map of the system you are trying to develop and the other systems that it might coincide with. Make sure you create as comprehensive a picture as possible so that you can identify gaps before you implement. If you are trying to solve an already existing problem, take a step back and make sure your solution has taken into account the whole history to what contributed to the problem and maps out the short and long term future using the proposed solution.

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