Mutual empathy is a feature of any successful relationship, may it be romantic, family or professional. It is more crucial in some relationship than others. The importance of this skill for a leader is quite critical.
Just think about it, how does it make you feel when someone just “gets” you. It makes your life simpler and makes you feel comfortable around that person. As a leader it is essential for you to keep your subordinates comfortable and concern free. People are productive and perform the best when their minds are cleared of any concern or worry and empathizing with them will help you as a leader to clear their concerns, solve their problems and help them see things clearly. So how does empathy work?
Listen to what they say
To understand is to first know. If you don’t know then you never will understand. The gap between knowing something and understanding it well is effective communication. People may not always talk about concerns/problems or worries they have. But when they do, listening to them and devoting the time to it should be the highest priority in your list as a leader. Selflessly involve yourself in their concern and care about it. Try hard to understand their situation. There may be a thousand other things on your plate but this comes first.
Make it easier for them to talk
It’s not easy for someone to talk to you about their concern, may it be professional or personal. It is your duty to make them feel you are there if they want to do so. The relationship you build with your subordinate creates and facilitates the climate for this. The culture and environment in your team plays an important role. You have to constantly assure directly or indirectly that you care and want to help.
Listen to what they don’t say
You need to constantly pay attention to the behavior of your subordinates. There are people who talk and there are those who don’t. Some naturally exhibit their concerns and worries through different behavioral traits, negative or positive. Though perceiving this is not an easy task, it’s important to pay attention. You should be careful not to assume the scenario based on behavior but this serves as an important channel to initiate communication. Little differences in people’s behavior will tell you that something is not right.
Sometimes people try to communicate indirectly. If you are not paying attention you may never know and they may never want to try again. This too serves as a great channel to initiate communication.
Put yourself in their shoes
It doesn’t matter how much you communicate with someone. If you are not trying to understand the situation being in their shoes you are not really empathizing. Imagination is important. Every other person thinks different and understands the world around them differently. This may be due to their culture, exposure/experiences, beliefs and other factors. You as a leader have to take the effort to imagine, see and feel what they do as people. You are probably never going to see it or feel it exactly the way they do, but the amount of effort you put in understanding and imagining may take you close to what they see and feel.
Acquiring the skill
Is empathy really a skill, and can it be acquired? Yes it can. For some people it comes naturally, but like any other skill practicing is the key to acquiring this one as well. It requires an undivided level of patience and care to constantly practice this. It is a difficult thing to practice if you are not good at it. You need to keep remembering to pay attention, listen and spend time on the relationship. It may take a long period of time to be good at it but constantly practicing is the key.
Empathy is probably the most important and most difficult people skill a leader must have. So don’t give up!
“To perceive is to suffer” – Aristotle.
Image Credit - http://www.artefactgroup.com/content/tool/from-theory-to-practice-designing-for-empathy-toolkit/