Some of us are wired naturally to express empathy, to be aware of and in tune with others’ feelings. Some of us, not so much. If you want to be effective as a leader, and well, as a human being, you need to understand and strengthen your empathetic side.
Social awareness or empathy, is the ability to recognize and understand moods of those around us. Reading emotions of others as we interact one on one, and in a group-setting is vital to effective communication and building trust.
Ironically, in our personal and professional lives we need this more than ever. At the same time, our capacity to extend it to others is pretty compromised. Right now, we're emotionally drained. So how in the world do we tap into empathy, particularly if we’re not wired this way to begin with?
Empathy is not about agreeing with the emotions of others, it’s trying to understand the other person’s emotions and the context around them. It’s also not about sympathizing with them, feeling sad or sorry for others, pitying them. Empathy is about the others’ experience. Not judging. Caring.
Tip 1:be mindful of cues. Maintaining eye contact is the key to noting facial and body cues that give us invaluable information on others’ feelings. When we listen dichotically, splitting our attention in any way we miss so much. This is at the heart of empathy because facial expressions typically last between 0.5 and 4 seconds and involve the entire face. Some of these cues are extremely subtle. If we're not watching, we're missing vital information.
Tip 2: keep our opinions to ourselves. Empathy is not about us. Our opinions, examples, and “stories” can detract from a focus on the other person’s experience. Our job is to see their point of view without including our own perspective. It doesn’t mean we can’t share, but connect first, honor their feelings and emotions first. And avoid the very ineffective catch phrase, "I understand how you feel."
Tip 3: identify their feelings and paraphrase their words. This means communicate back what we believe they are experiencing (labelling emotions and the “why”). There’s research that suggests that there is much value in being able to accurately label emotions. This allows us to more fully process it, to respond to it more constructively. To make sense of the emotions, we have to try to label them.
Which is harder than it sounds because based on research by Brene Brown, people are typically only about to accurately label about 3 emotions, sadness, happiness and anger. While the spectrum of emotions is so much more significant than these three.
What resonates with you in this list?
Things to practice:
In a recent class I was teaching on emotional intelligence one of the participants shared that between our two sessions, she practiced empathy with her son. Rather than her usual approach, she decided to try to label his emotion and understand his perspective. His response? “Mom, I feel like you’re finally listening to me.” Her emotion? Joy and delight.
Want to be that leader? The one who connects and inspires? Check out The Confident Leader.