Being an effective leader requires many skills. One of the most important is empathy. Empathy is about recognizing emotions in others and putting yourself in another person’s shoes. It is a skill that can be developed.
It should not be confused with sympathy. Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others, being aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things, but that you appreciate what they’re going through.
In leadership, empathy matters. It matters because leaders need to put aside their viewpoint and try to see from the other person’s point of view. It matters because it validates the other person’s perspective. It matters because it requires us to listen—to listen with our ears, our eyes, our instincts, and our heart.
Developing empathic skills improves our people skills. When we develop the capacity to comprehend or experience other’s emotions, it reinforces the concept that leadership is all about people, it’s all about the relationship. Effective leaders value their followers as individuals and are more tolerant and willing to understand the position and objectivity of others. When we can accept and leverage diversity because of our differences, and not in spite of them, we can be a more effective empathic leader.
Being willing and able to listen with empathy can set you apart as a leader. There are at least three ways we can be more empathic listeners:
- Make an effort to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues, such as body language, tone and facial expressions.
- Make an effort to understand the meaning of the message, summarize the points of agreement or disagreement, and assure them you remember what they say.
- Give appropriate replies, acknowledge them, and clarify any questions you might have.
In an article on empathy in leadership, Ginny Whitelaw, President of the institute for Zen Leadership, wrote that the best coaching advice she ever received was from Tanouye Roshi, a certified Zen master, who told her, “Become the other person and go from there.” She wrote, “to become the other person is to feel their emotional state, see through her eyes, think like she thinks, and see how she views us, our proposition, and the situation at hand. You can start making big things happen, not by controlling, by connecting; not making war on them, but by becoming the people whose interests are served by those big things.”
Once you see beyond yourself and your own concerns, you will realize that there is so much more to discover and appreciate beyond your own world.