How Understanding the Power of Empathy Makes You a Better Leader
Empathy is a big, complicated word that has different meanings in various settings. In your personal life, empathy means being open and sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of your friends, family and partners. In the workplace, empathy requires you to have tough conversations about thoughts and feelings with colleagues in a setting where the conversation should focus on work-related topics.
It’s often easier to use empathy in your personal life, because being intimate and talking about your feelings may come more naturally with the important people in your life, though it can still be a huge challenge. But when it comes to practicing empathy in a professional setting, many people struggle to make those personal connections that can make collaboration and communication more effective.
The most effective leaders know what empathy is and what it looks like in their relationships at work, including with their team members, lateral colleagues, superiors and their customers or clients. In fact, empathy is one of the key markers of high job performance for managers. You can become a better leader by learning what empathy feels like and how to practice it at a subconscious level. That way, you can better understand the people in your life, avoid and resolve conflicts and strengthen all of your relationships — including those at work.
What does empathy actually mean?
A few years ago, I would have sworn that I was really good at practicing empathy in my relationships. However, I didn’t really know what empathy was or what it felt like. I, like many others, often thought of empathy as just the practice of seeking to understand others’ experiences, feelings and perspectives. And this, to some extent, is true.
But I realized that empathy goes further than that. The true goal of empathy is to focus on people’s emotional experiences and build strong connections through this process. When someone shares their feelings or an experience that has impacted them, your goal as an empathetic person is to connect with that person’s emotional experience and feel along with them. This can help you develop an understanding of why they act and react the way they do to various situations. But that shouldn’t be your main focus when you have these vital interactions.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain empathy is to talk about its opposite — loneliness. So, if empathy is to connect with someone else’s feelings and understand them, loneliness is when you’re not connected to someone else’s feelings and they’re not connected to or understanding yours.
Most people describe loneliness as feeling alone. But there are some recognizable signs — symptoms, if you will — of loneliness:
- You don’t share what you’re feeling.
- Other people don’t share with you what they’re feeling.
- You would rather hold onto and hide your pain or the issues you’re facing.
It’s actually possible to feel these symptoms of loneliness when you’re surrounded by close friends, family and co-workers. Have you ever felt that someone (or anyone) just doesn’t understand you? If so, you probably experienced loneliness or a lack of empathetic and emotional connection with another person.
How to be more empathetic as a leader
As a leader, you must be able to recognize the signs of loneliness in your team members, as well as those you report to. Team members feeling lonely or isolated can lead to a decrease in work performance, less effective collaboration and a breakdown in communication, among other issues at a team level and an organizational level. Plus, with many employees and organizations still figuring out remote work culture due to the pandemic, loneliness and isolation at work have become increasingly tough issues for leaders to solve.
Not only can you apply empathy to prevent or reduce burnout and improve business outcomes, but you can also identify chances to connect with the people you work with and improve your relationships. You can improve your empathy by implementing these practices into your everyday conversations with employees:
- Be curious: In order to connect with someone, you must be curious about their background, personal experiences, unique perspective and feelings. So, you have to ask questions. Spend less time focusing on what’s going on in your life, and make room for others to tell you about their experiences or how they feel regarding a work conflict, a project or any personal issues they’re facing outside of work. While you don’t want to pry or invade their personal boundaries, you should check in with them regularly to open that door.
- Recognize and take advantage of opportunities to listen: People do actually want to talk about the issues they’re facing, but they may not feel comfortable or know how to express it. This is especially true in professional relationships between team members and leaders. An employee may be scared of facing repercussions or being judged for feeling stressed, anxious, frustrated or overwhelmed. So, you should create and take advantage of natural opportunities to invite your team to express their feelings or bring up issues with you.
- Break the social contract of conversation: Many cultures have a socially accepted give-and-take approach to conversation — one person speaks and then passes the conversation over to the other person. But the best, most empathetic leaders know that this social contract can prevent people from getting the room they need to open up. You might let go of this social contract to let an employee elaborate after they mention they’ve had a hard time sleeping and being able to focus at work. That way, you can learn more about what may be causing these issues and better understand what they’re going through at this time.
- Use welcoming body language: You can use your body language to invite others to approach you and seek empathy from you. The idea of an open-door policy has been around for more than a decade, and the reasons to have an open-door policy are still valid. But you can go even further by appearing more approachable and welcoming. Face people directly, and turn your whole body toward them when they begin speaking to you or when you want to engage them.
- Validate others’ feelings: When your employee is telling you about a personal or professional experience that’s affected them, you can let them know that you recognize and value how they feel. Verbally express this by saying “I would feel the same way” or a similar phrase. You can also use your body language to nod your acknowledgment or tilt your head to show that you’re engaged in what they’re saying. As you consciously practice these signals, they’ll become more instinctive.
- Ask emotional questions: “How did that make you feel?” is a great way to get someone to tell you about their emotions, but if used over and over again, it can feel like you’re trying to be their therapist. But there are other ways to ask questions that get them talking more about how experiences make them feel. Ask fewer fact-based questions about what exactly happened. Guess their feelings by asking “Did that make you feel [emotion]?” to show that you’re sensing their emotions and connecting with their feelings. You can also state how you would feel in a situation to give them permission to elaborate, such as “I would have felt angry if that was me.”
- Don’t interrupt or add your experience: One of the biggest myths around empathy is that you should share an experience you’ve faced that’s similar to the one the other person is telling you about. Sure, this can demonstrate that you, in some ways, can understand what they’re going through, because you’ve been in their shoes. However, it takes away from their emotional experience and places the focus on you, disregarding the true meaning of empathy: focusing on and honoring another person’s emotional experience.
- Ask for permission to give your input: Another big myth regarding empathizing with others is that you should share your advice or opinions when someone is speaking to you about their experience. But inserting what you think takes away from the other person’s emotional experience, reducing your ability to actually empathize with them and potentially making them feel like their emotional experience is somehow less valuable. By asking them if they want your input, you give them the space to fully express their feelings and decide what they need from you at this time.
All of these steps show that you care about your employees and team members. Caring is a key element of empathy, because we can really only empathize with others when we also care about their well-being and success. But the goal of empathy is not to care performatively (caring for the sake of seeming like you care); the goal of empathy as a leader is to actually care for your team members, so you can connect with them and build strong relationships that help you reach goals together.
How to receive empathy from others as a leader
Your job as a leader is to empathize with your team, recognize what they need, and use this information to support them, solve problems and improve business outcomes. But you need others to empathize with you as a leader, too. You need to feel that your team members understand where you’re coming from, so they can best communicate and collaborate with you. You also need your superiors and lateral colleagues to empathize with you, so they can better support and help you.
But the key to receiving empathy is to make sure others have the opportunity to empathize with you. Here’s how you can better receive empathy from others in your organization and on your team:
- Care about others: You need to make people want to care about you just as you care for them. Think of caring and empathy as a favor. You show your team members that you care, so they are more likely to return the favor and care about you, too. Express your care, and show that others matter to you by practicing empathy, being curious and showing your support.
- Show your vulnerability: Vulnerability is another big, complicated word that some think just means “weakness.” But in professional settings, vulnerability means being authentic and personable. Be a fellow human in the workplace rather than project a strong, impenetrable facade. You can be vulnerable by sharing with team members that you are also worried about reaching a goal while simultaneously creating an effective plan to hit your milestones. You can be more personable by sharing a little about the personal issues you may be facing, like in your family, your relationship or your mental health. Doing so creates the same opportunities for the empathy you want from your employees.
- Spend time alone with people: It can be harder and more intimidating to share an emotional experience when you’re in a group of people. That’s why getting one-on-one with employees and superiors is the best way to get vulnerable, make stronger, more personal connections and strengthen trust in a professional relationship.
- Ask for empathy: When you do want to share your emotional experiences with someone, ask them for what you need. Maybe you don’t want advice, but you want them to listen and understand your feelings.
- Correctly and comprehensively name how you feel: You can feel more than one emotion at once. In fact, you typically do feel many emotions at one time. But when you’re able to name all of these emotions and let others know exactly what you’re feeling, they can better understand your emotional experience and empathize with you.
- Educate yourself on the theory and practice of empathy: Empathy, both theoretical and practical, is a common topic covered at seminars and in podcasts, blog posts, webinars and other educational formats. Exposing yourself to these resources and truly immersing yourself in the empathetic experience is an incredible tool to improve your leadership skills and emotional intelligence.
While you have to get to know others to better connect with and understand their feelings, you also have to share parts of yourself so that others can better empathize with you. This is perhaps the most challenging part of empathy that many leaders forget. But learning to empathize and receive empathy from others is a learning process that can take years to master. However, these tips should be a good starting point.