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Empathy, often overlooked as a “soft skill,” has recently become an increasingly vital trait for effective leaders, a trend that has stimulated in large part the need to retain productive employees during Covid-19. With the world becoming increasingly unpredictable (including post-pandemic effects, as well as more volatile weather and storm patterns, marred by increasingly hateful politics), people are facing higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. One result is that customers, employees, partners, and peers need empathy, and they will appreciate a leader who goes the extra mile to show it. And that’s not just guesswork: A recent Catalyst study of 900 employees revealed that leaders who exercise empathy will have a more engaged team and higher performance, as well as a more profitable job overall.
What does it mean to be an empathetic leader?
But what exactly does it mean to be an empathetic leader? How does this appear in our behaviour? How do we distinguish between empathy and empathy? As Dr. Brian Brown explains, “Empathy is a choice, and it is a poor choice.”
Emotional empathy has been shown to be a more hereditary trait than learned behavior, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all practice empathy and become better at it, especially among those who are not treated properly. So, take the opportunity to make it a choice, and you may find it becomes second nature.
Related: How companies lead with empathy
Empathy is about understanding what the other person is going through – trying to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feeling empathy for what they may be going through. However, empathy shows an understanding of someone’s position, but from your point of view, not theirs. The former helps people feel included, not just recognized. It’s easier to be empathetic (we can all remember times when we felt someone’s situation), but to truly practice empathy, it’s necessary to dig deeper.
To be a truly empathetic leader, you must be able to demonstrate a level of understanding first. This requires actively listening to what someone is dealing with, and asking the right questions to gain a deeper understanding. Such a leader would be someone who takes the time to check in regularly with a team, and uses the time to see, in dimensional terms, how people are doing — not just on work assignments, but also in terms of their general mental health. If you’re not someone who does this naturally, it’s a good idea to schedule regular check-ins to catch up with key employees, partners, and clients to see what they might be stressing about and how you can help. Otherwise, before you know it, a key employee has quit, and you’ll wish you had seen that coming. Finding time to speak on a personal level is not only good for the team, it can make a difference to the company’s bottom line as well, as it promotes a sense of inclusion.
Related: How to spread emotional intelligence to business success
Adopt an emotionally engaged, non-judgmental approach
It is critical, while adopting these more emotionally reactive approaches, to do so without judgment. Once you start offering opinions about someone’s situation (no matter how well-intentioned), you are no longer empathetic. Maybe he’s sympathetic, but you also missed out on an important opportunity to create a safe space for people to share. Often, people are not looking for an answer to a problem; They simply want to be able to participate, and to take from someone the time to appreciate and understand what they are going through. So, resist the temptation to jump in and solve problems. Engage in active listening— pay attention, have an open and accepting attitude, make eye contact, turn off your phone, and whatever you do, don’t watch the clock. This is difficult in our multitasking day, but it will make a huge difference in how a person interprets the conversation.
Although the world is pretty much virtual these days, it’s also helpful to be able to meet in person (or at least via Zoom). Some people have difficulty sharing challenges or hardships; Your ability to sense what’s going on in their lives is greatly enhanced by absorbing body language and then asking clarifying questions to get a deeper sense of what they’re feeling.
Related: 5 ways to deal with an introvert in the video world
Asking for feedback is a great way to see if your empathy muscles are working well. It is easy and natural to conclude that they are, but the person on the other side may not see it that way. So, allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to feedback, including constructive criticism.
In my experience, leaders who embrace the advice above will create stronger human connections that will help people and their businesses. And you never know… you might be the one who needs sympathy someday.