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An Empathetic Approach to Leadership

Research supports what we know instinctively: empathy is crucial to our relationships with others – from family members to co-workers. Yet, it is all too easy to slip out of an empathetic mode, especially when under pressure.

Practicing empathy can help leaders and managers grow in the ability to develop positive, constructive relationships at work, even under stressful circumstances.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy is the essential element of emotional intelligence, well known to be a differentiating capacity of great leadership. An empathetic approach can aid leaders and managers in a wide range of situations, from creating a positive team dynamic to addressing daily challenges to holding a difficult conversation.

So, what is empathy? And how is it distinguished from sympathy?

Empathy and sympathy are often used inter-changeably. Yet, there is a key difference.

An easy way to break it down is as follows:

  • Sympathy means “I feel sorry for you.”
  • Empathy means “I feel what you feel.”

Empathy is the ability to understand exactly what another person is going through and relate to those feelings in any given situation; even if your feelings aren’t identical, you are able to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Sympathy is the reaction of feeling pity for another person, rather than being “in it” with them.

As useful tool when trying to learn the difference is to watch Brené Brown’s explainer video on the topic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

As Brown says: “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”   

Empathy Is Part of Our Biology

From a molecular level, research shows that empathy is actually a biological reaction – it’s a reaction built into our DNA.

Humans are soft wired to feel empathetic towards others, and this is because of something scientists call “mirror neurons.”

Mirror neurons work like this:  If you are observing another human’s experience of emotion – whether it be joy, anger, or frustration – the same neurons that are lighting up in their brain will begin to light up in yours.

Researcher Marco Lacoboni says of mirror neurons: “They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people.”

We are biologically designed to feel empathy for one another. It is a survival mechanism, encouraging us to reach out and support one another. It is the force behind the human desire to help others and a key driver in the desire to belong.

The Art and Skill of Empathetic Conversation

Empathy is an inherent human instinct, and it’s also easy enough to understand, but the power of empathy comes from using your empathetic reactions intentionally with others. This can be especially helpful in a work environment where you are tasked with leading or managing others.

At the core, all work is accomplished through a series of conversations and communications. Learning the art and skill of mindful and empathetic communication can dramatically improve your effectiveness, eliminate misunderstandings, and build credibility and trust with others.

Oftentimes, we miss connecting on a deeper level because we don’t totally understand where the other person is coming from or how they feel about their current situation. Simple changes to your conversational tactics can help you to cultivate empathy with your colleagues.  

Listen, Then Listen, Then Listen More

Usually, the key to better understanding is improving your listening skills. If our listening isn’t focused and attentive, then our conversations, actions and reactions will miss the mark.

Here are a few tips and tricks to become a better listener:

  • Be fully present and engaged
  • Use active body language
  • Try not to interrupt, even with questions
  • Try to minimize your own thoughts as the other person speaks
  • Avoid coming up with your own response as you listen
  • Listen for the emotion behind the words

Once you’ve listened thoroughly and you understand your colleague’s situation, you are now tasked with an empathetic response.

Try following these simple steps:

  1. Start by summarizing the conversation to make sure you fully understand the situation and then ask: “Did I get that right?”
  2. Instead of jumping into problem-solving mode, follow up with open-ended questions that invite your colleague to explore their issue more fully. A few good examples are:
    • What’s the hardest part about this situation for you?
    • What can I do to support you in this situation?
    • What does your heart tell you to do?
    • What does your gut tell you to do?
    • What do you really want?
  3. Close with a supportive, understanding statement. Statements like:
    • I’m sorry.
    • I understand.
    • I would feel the same way.
    • This is a hard situation.
    • You are making sense.
    • I am here for you.

As a result of learning and practicing these simple empathetic conversational skills, you will be able to better understand and support those around you. More than that, those around you will feel understood and supported.

Sustaining an Empathetic Mode

Using empathy is a purposeful choice. It’s something that takes time and practice to master. And, it’s also easy to slip-out of an empathetic mode. Overtime, these skills will become second-nature to you. Until then, how can you notice when you slip away from an empathetic reaction and how can you come back into an empathetic mindset? 

Here are two ideas:

  1. Simply notice your own habits and triggers. Learn how to recognize the triggers that may cause you to fall out of an empathetic mode by practicing self-observation and self-reflection. Perhaps you spend a week and note-down moments when you fall into an accusatory or negative mindset towards those you work with. At the end of the week, take a look at what you’ve written down. Do you recognize any patterns? Are there certain people who you tend to snap at? Are there others who you always give the benefit of the doubt? Simply notice, and then work to balance your reactions. An easy way to do this is to take two deep breaths before responding to a trigger. 
  2. Practice mindfulness. In the simplest terms, mindfulness means paying attention to all that is happening around you, rather than drifting off into your thoughts or your technology. A habit of mindfulness is essential to tuning-in to the emotions and situations of those around you. Just like any skill, mindfulness is something that you can strengthen and improve on over time. Here are a few simple mindfulness practices to get you started.  

Five Simple Mindfulness Techniques

  1. Take ten slow deep breaths, noticing your inhales and exhales.
  2. Find your physical center – a long straight spine, relaxed shoulders, balanced weight in both feet.
  3. Make a mental list of three things that you are grateful for.
  4. Take a short walk and notice what’s happening all around you.
  5. Repeat a short, positive phrase to yourself, such as: “I find calm in the chaos.”

Eventually, as you become more aware of the world around you, you will not only be able to better understand the people you work with and their motivations, but you will also understand your impact on others. 

The Path of Empathetic Leadership

Empathy is an essential skill for leaders. But some may fear that demonstrating empathy could cause you to be seen as “soft.” Psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon makes it clear in a 2017 Forbes article that this isn’t the case:

“Don’t confuse empathy with making people happy or being nice… Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.”

Empathy allows for a better understanding of others and creates more insightful and impactful leadership. Using empathy strategically means that you can take in all perspectives before you make decisions or take actions.

An empathetic approach to leadership is something to commit to each and every day. Something to practice. Something to work on. A skill to build. A leadership differentiator.

“Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty.”

Dr. Prudy Gourguechon, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises leaders in business and finance on the underlying psychology of critical decisions

Using simple conversational tactics, being mindful of the moment, and consistent practice are the first steps down the path of empathetic leadership.

If you’d like to learn more about empathetic leadership, or our programs, workshops, and coaching, please contact us.

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