Empathy: A Key Skill for Effective Leadership

What makes leaders afraid?

People usually become leaders because they enjoy taking control of things. It’s this very need to control that often blocks a leader from learning how to show empathy. “If I show empathy to this employee, they’ll think I’m agreeing with them,” is often the retort I hear. One CEO stated that he “didn’t want to open ‘Pandora’s box’ and have employees waste time venting.” In my experience coaching executives, their lack of empathy usually surfaces as an issue when they participate in a 360 input survey. I usually conduct a 360 at the beginning of a coaching assignment and the one I frequently use assesses dimensions of emotional intelligence, one of which is empathy.

A recent study by talent acquisition firm Lee Hecht Harrison of over 600 employees supports lack of empathy as a problem in the workplace. Fifty eight percent of managers were found to fail at displaying the right level of understanding and empathy toward their direct reports.

I was trained on how to empathize by two of the best, Drs. Robert Carkhuff and Bernard Berenson (The Art of Helping). They define empathy as the ability to “capture the feeling and meaning of what another is saying” or emoting and showing the person that you understand by responding with empathy. In my graduate training, we would practice how to empathize for hours on end through intensive role play. We would analyze non-verbal communication – eye contact, body messaging (Arms crossed? Looking down or to the side, etc.?) as well as verbal communication. We would ask ourselves, “How would I feel if I were this person in this situation?” We used the format, “You feel _____ because _____.” This helped us discipline ourselves to identify the correct feeling and why the person was feeling a certain way.

The purpose of practicing empathy is like going to a driving range. Practicing your golf swing helps you to drive more naturally when you are in the game. Empathy is not an easy skill for many. Learning how to use it in a low threat environment like coaching can make all the difference. When you walk in another’s shoes first, it may seem uncomfortable, like you are losing control. However, you will discover that taking the time to empathize without scripting what you will say next will lead you and the employee to new levels of understanding and growth.

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photo credit: TonZ via photopin cc

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