For much of my career, I wasn’t an empathetic leader and, frankly, it didn’t bother me. Then one day I was asked to actually step back and consider my mindset.
It took me a while.
I’d never even considered the question. However, once I thought about where my thoughts about empathy were generated, I realized that I needed to give empathy another try. My mother was one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever known. Yet, in my young eyes, I would often see her as someone who was giving far more than she was getting. Though I was too young to express it in words, I truly believed that she lacked boundaries. What I now recognize as charity, compassion, and great listening skills, my brain translated to her being used. I felt that many of the people she interacted with didn’t deserve her empathy.
What I know now is that there was something about her that drew people in.
Isn’t this what leaders want—to draw people in? Today, I understand that effective leaders actually have incredible boundaries. They know that sometimes all people need is an empathetic ear. In fact, most of the time effective coaching is nothing more than great listening. My favorite leadership coach, Alan Fine, has an approach that resonates with me. He believes people already know how to be great. People who report to us already know what to do, they just aren’t doing it. If this is true, what can leaders do to show up in more empathetic ways?
With over a decade of practice and thousands of hours logged as a coach, I’ve learned that sometimes empathy shows up most purely as just listening—listening to understand. From a position of understanding, we make better, more accurate decisions. In the next week, I invite you to do just two things.
Ditch your desire to listen for accuracy.
In all transparency, this requires incredible amounts of effort for me. My professional training as a chemical engineer actually solidified my skills at listening for accuracy. In fact, if I’m not careful I will debate ad nauseam about a point that is not quite accurate. However, listening for understanding is listening to hear the spirit of what a person is saying instead of listening to each word for precision or accuracy. For a full week, I want you to listen to somebody else with the sole purpose of understanding. Recognize that whatever they think, feel, or believe makes perfect sense to them even if you don’t perceive the situation in the same way.
Becoming more empathetic as a leader is less about debating, solving, or fixing. You will have plenty of opportunities for that. For now, listen simply to understand another person’s position. Once you’ve tried it, please reach out to let me know how it goes.
What I know for sure is that practicing empathetic listening on a regular basis has resulted in my becoming a more empathetic person and leader.
Identify why you might be opposed to empathy.
Too often, leaders are opposed to leading with empathy. If this is you, spend some time reflecting on why this might be so. First, where did you develop empathy resistance? We don’t always consider the genesis of our leadership approaches. It is helpful to reflect and interrogate our own positions to determine if we still believe the things that are informing our daily decisions and interactions.
If you step back and have the courage to question yourself, empathy will catalyze growth in your life—and your bottom line.