We often talk about empathy as an important skill and characteristic demonstrated by successful leaders, especially during times of disruption and crisis. Empathy can be the bridge that helps us reach across today’s physical and social distancing to create emotional connections. Empathy can help us sense when frustration, fear, and stress may be growing and getting in the way of people’s ability to focus, invest, and do their best work.
It may seem like empathy is a “nice to have” behavior that can supplement hard facts and reality. Yet, research shows that when leaders focus on the needs of employees, employees are four times more likely to produce high quality work. In fact, “hard facts” can be misleading if not understood in the context of the people who are associated with them.
So, what are key elements of empathy and how can we demonstrate it? Here are five behaviors that can build and help us benefit from empathy.
We can start by being fully present with others. For example, during meetings we can resist the temptation to check our phones and read emails. Avoiding distractions can help us to tune in to conversations and discussions at deeper levels and reduce the possibility that we miss a key comment or nonverbal signal that carries an indirect message about what people are really thinking and feeling.
Second, we can commit to talking less and listening more. Obviously, talking is how we convey what we are thinking and expecting. Yet, listening can give us crucial information about what our words mean to those around us. Listening can help us gain insights and shape our message. Even if we disagree with what we hear, it provides us with an opportunity to build understanding of and appreciation for the perspectives of others. The old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason” applies here.
Third, we can focus our attention on emotional signals around us. Emotions provide context for words and often convey information that will never find its way into words. Tuning in to emotions can provide key clues to understanding what people need and want from us and their work. Decades old research has shown that more than 50% of what is communicated between people is conveyed outside of words. The research still holds and is worth our attention.
Fourth, we can be curious. Asking questions about experiences, perspectives, worries, hopes, aspirations, and other aspects of people’s lives not only gives us valuable information to help understand them, it conveys interest and respect. Often the simple question, “Why?” can open doors to understanding and give us access to information that otherwise would have been left unshared and unexplored.
Fifth, we can anticipate. The first four elements of empathy give us access to nearly unlimited information to inform our thinking, shape our messaging, and align our actions with what will engage, inspire, reassure, and motivate. The understanding and insights we possess can help us to avoid unnecessary confusion and minimize misunderstanding, especially when clarity is crucial to move forward together.
Remarkably, empathy not only helps others feel our caring, concern, and commitment, it can provide crucial insights and help guide our leadership. There may never have been a time when empathy is more important and valuable than it is today.