While having lunch with my son recently, he said something that made me smile. In describing my frustrations with a situation I was encountering – he said that “a little empathy goes a long way.” This made me think about how I had handled the situation and I realised that I could have been more empathetic.
In my work, I have come to realize how incredibly important empathy is to a person’s success…. Why did I not heed my own understanding of this!! Studies show that having empathy leads to better results: people with greater empathy enjoy better relationships and greater wellbeing with others. Empathy is also considered an important signifier of people with higher Emotional Intelligence (EQ), another well researched component of human performance.
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is undervaluing the importance of empathy and its impact on bottom line results. In fact, a recent study showed that leaders ranked empathy as the least important attribute needed to be effective.
Since empathy is often confused with sympathy, let’s first get a clear definition of what empathy means. It’s commonly defined as a person’s ability to recognize, perceive and directly feel the emotion of another. Or as the adage goes, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” While sympathy entails feeling sorry for someone’s hardship, empathy centres on identifying and understanding not only a person’s struggles but their joys as well.
Why is the ability to empathize so critical? Next to food, water and shelter, being understood is the most important thing a human being needs. And this really boils down to the need to have someone understand our goals, our mind-set, our feelings, our predicaments and our challenges. The source of this type of understanding mainly comes from feelings of empathy.
To be more empathetic—which is a skill that can certainly be practiced and developed—we’re told to listen more and to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. But when business demands create high levels of pressure and when people’s different personalities come into play and create conflict, empathy can take a back seat to the here and now.
There are ways you can boost your empathy while still meeting work/life demands and driving toward your goals. You can:
- Listen for meaning. When you are connecting with someone, stop multi-tasking and truly listen. Remember, the idea that’s on the tip of your tongue is most important to you, not to the person who is speaking. Let the other person talk while you listen for meaning with your eyes, ears and heart. You will come away with a deeper understanding and the person will feel heard.
- Imagine. Don’t just sympathize — actually visualize what it would be like from the other person’s perspective. This will allow you to go beyond someone’s surface behavior and take an active interest in his/her concerns or excitement.
- Stop judging. Everyone comes to problem solving with a different perspective and set of skills. Some people are more emotional, some more logical. Collective intelligence—which pulls all the differences together—produces better outcomes. If you are in a judging mode, your values and thoughts may crowd out important facts and ideas.
- Cherish people’s strengths. We all have unique qualities we bring to the table. Be sure to understand people’s strengths so you can help leverage them.
- Connect with people where they are not where you want them to be. Stop hoping for someone to be something they are not, or at least not today. Recognize and honor people’s capabilities in the moment. Change is possible and it can happen, but there needs to be empathy and trust in order to make a substantial shift.
Benefits of using Empathy
Companies and researchers are increasingly realizing that empathy is a must-have virtue for leaders because it can inspire, motivate, envision, and lead others to greater effectiveness. When a leader has empathy, it means ‘I understand why you think this way and why you struggle with this. We don’t have to agree, but I do understand.’
As a leader when you effectively practice empathy you can more easily:
- Push people out of their comfort zones in order to propel growth. If you are a leader or manager, this is a key skill to have. For example, if you are working with someone who struggles to have difficult conversations (which is holding the individual and the business back), you’ll need empathy to spur change. You’ll need to understand where he/she is coming from and also have his/her trust while you work together to change his/her approach and mindset.
- Help people take risk and feel safe in their mistakes. In organizations where leaders have empathy, employees feel safe in their failures because they do not think they will always be blamed for them. Mistakes are learning experiences and the critical building blocks to future successes. People who are afraid to take risk don’t grow and blame others for their errors.
- Make better informed decisions. If we empathize with our employees, they are more willing to be open and share information that is sensitive and sometimes difficult to reveal. The openness allows us to know what is really going on in our work environment and therefore help us make better decisions. In general, it creates better communication flow and more information sharing.
- Improved problem solving skills. Our ability to empathize instead of judge gives us better problem solving skills and more calm as we navigate differences. Teams that function best have different personalities that bring various perspectives to the table. In problem solving, we want innovation, risk taking and different points of view to challenge the norms and achieve the best results.
- Create a more rewarding working environment. It’s easy to understand that if people like where they work and the people they work with, they will put in more effort, which can lead to better results.
Empathy lays the foundation for optimism, motivation, commitment as well as organizational vision and growth. As you commence 2015, try to practice more empathy and remove judgment. Watch the results unfold in front of you as you see difficult relationships become easier to navigate.