Ron Price

From Episode #68 of The Complete Leader Podcast

Today, empathy is a critical skill in successfully leading others. Unfortunately, it is also an often-misunderstood skill. Some studies show that the further up in the organization you rank, the less empathy you demonstrate. To me, this makes perfect sense—the more responsibility you have, the easier it is to be insulated in your own opinions, biases, and troubles. As a leader in today’s world, ignoring what’s happening in others’ lives won’t serve you.

It is a misnomer that being empathetic is akin to being soft. Many confuse empathy with sympathy, but where sympathy is more about commiserating, empathy is about understanding what someone is going through. It’s developing a deeper awareness of what is happening with that person in a way that makes you a more effective leader.

With the increasing complexity of our world, the growing diversity of the work force, and the large amount of knowledge work being done today, empathy is one of the key skills leaders need. Let’s look at what being empathetic means for leaders and how to grow this core competency.

What exactly does it mean to be an empathetic leader?

Empathy has often meant many different things to different people. But let’s get back to the root.

At its core, empathy means to be able to enter into the feelings of another person. So, as a leader, it’s about understanding and respecting what another person’s experience has been. You don’t necessarily have to agree with their opinion—that’s more sympathetic—but you understand their experience, their feelings, and how those emotions are influencing their thoughts and the way they speak or behave. You care, but you don’t quite sympathize because you’re not going to enable this person.

This is how it becomes an act of leadership. Empathizing means acknowledging that this person exists as a unique human being with their own experiences and that they’re not just there to do your bidding. You recognize that they have a right to their own experience. Yet, you still want to guide them as a leader so that together you can accomplish something.

How does empathy help you be a better leader?

The ability to understand another person’s experiences is a core building block for a lot of other skills you need as a leader. Empathy helps you with negotiation and persuasion because you can relate to others’ experiences. It also helps you to solve conflicts, build teams, and strengthen your relationships by better understanding the individuals you work with. With empathy, you can take your understanding of others’ experiences into account to have better judgement and make better decisions. You’ll know what to do, how, when, and who to involve, which will also give you more influence over your team. Almost everything that you’re going to employ when you’re leading people you can do better when you’ve developed empathy as a skill.

These are all benefits of this skill, and you’ll see the ROI in developing empathy in the way that people follow you. Often, people follow someone because of their leadership position—because they have to. But when a leader demonstrates empathy, people begin to follow them because they want to and because they feel known, connected, understood. It’s no longer simply an intellectual or functional connection but an emotional connection because of the introduction of empathy, and those people will go the extra mile for an empathetic leader.

How do we develop empathy as a leader?

It’s not very complicated, but it also isn’t very easy. To develop the skill of empathy as a leader, follow these three steps:

  1. Cultivate a curiosity about others’ experiences. You cannot just assume that you know what is going on with someone. First develop this curiosity to understand their experiences, and then remember to not get caught up in the facts. That was one of my biggest learning moments as I’ve worked to develop empathy: separate the facts from the experience.

    What I mean by this is, I would often fail to focus on the story because I might not agree with their opinion of the facts. I might try to challenge them if I was in the same meeting and had a different experience—but the facts are secondary to that person’s experience. I learned this with my children when they would tell stories about when they were young. I would be so awestruck about our completely different experiences of the same event. It helped me realize I couldn’t understand their experience in the moment because I was having my own experience.
  2. Learn to listen with more than your ears. You want to develop the practice of watching body language. Pay attention to whether someone has a more open posture or if they are more closed off and defiant. And you don’t stop there. Listen with your heart too, to hear the underlying emotions. Most experiences are anchored in emotions, whether positive or negative, so consciously think about identifying and reflecting on those emotions. This way, you can say, “It sounds like that caused you a lot of sadness,” and give them the opportunity to respond. They may say, “Well, not exactly that.” When you reflect about what you think you’re hearing emotionally and you give them a chance to edit your thinking, you are going another layer deeper into empathy. If you keep doing that, you begin to develop a greater language for understanding and then explaining empathy.
  3. Intentionally put yourself in situations with people who are very different from you. This is a great way to develop more empathy. I once challenged someone I was coaching to set up interviews with three different kinds of people. The objective was to find out as much as they could about their experiences without casting any sort of judgement. If you can learn how to be curious, listen, ask questions, and seek to understand people that are on different walks of life than you are, then you’re going to expand your empathy. It not only gives you great ROI as a leader, but it also enriches your life.

While empathy may be one of the more misunderstood skills, it most certainly is a necessary skill for today’s leaders. Follow these three steps to grow your empathy and you’ll find improved relationships, better judgement, and the ability to lead with others in mind.

Header image by Christina Morillo/Pexels.