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  • Writer's pictureNancy Dering Mock

The Empathic Leader

Much has been written about empathy and its importance in understanding and relating to other people. Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. For everyone, it is a vital element in sustaining healthy relationships, behaving compassionately, and successfully navigating life's sticky situations. According to Daniel Goleman, author or Emotional Intelligence, "Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work."

And for leaders, it is doubly so. In recent studies by Development Dimensions International, empathy was identified as the biggest single leadership skill needed today. And, it is a critical element in the principles of Servant Leadership. So, how can leaders deepen their ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others?

1. Keep Your Self in Check. Empathy, at its core, is about regard for others. It is seeing others not as FTE's, but as fellow human beings. In many ways, it is the opposite of self-absorption. Leaders are challenged to be less absorbed in themselves and more tuned into those around them.

2. Listen. It all begins with listening, truly listening and attending to the thoughts, feelings and fears of others. This can be time-consuming, sometimes frustrating and infuriating, but it pays handsome dividends. As Brene Brown has observed, "Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior."

3. Suspend judgment. This is a challenge for everyone. It is natural to be forming responses, judgments, and criticism as we listen, especially if we are listening to strong emotions. Leaders are challenged to listen to both content and intent and formulate responses that acknowledge strong feelings and opinions without obligating themselves.

4. Practice Self-Control. The leader is also challenged to maintain control of situations, especially highly-charged ones. Empathy requires not only acknowledging the thoughts and feelings of others, but also recognizing and controlling your own responses.

5. Model Empathy. There is no more powerful example than the one a leader sets. Keeping one's self in check, listening non-judgmentally and practicing self-control set the stage for a work environment where people feel treated as fellow human beings, not widgets.

And, here's the good news! Empathy can be developed. It starts with focusing on others, with truly being concerned for their well-being. It develops with listening, suspending judgment and practicing self-control. It deepens further as leaders see the dividends of human connection in the heightened commitment of those around them.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Discuss the difference between empathy and sympathy.

  2. Have you worked with empathic leaders? How did they convey that they recognized and understood the feelings of others?

  3. Discuss "in many ways, empathy is the opposite of self-absorption."

  4. How can leaders develop the ability to listen and acknowledge feelings without necessarily agreeing with the position of others?

  5. What are two or three small things every leader can do this week to begin to deepen his or her empathy?

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