In a recent conversation about the joys of leadership, the subject of whether or not it’s important to be a “people person” came up. Actually, the conversation was more along the lines of, “why are some people so stupid”…but you get the general idea. While acknowledging the frustration of dealing with (allegedly) stupid people, I made the observation that a lot of struggles in leadership can be traced back to a lack of empathy.
Now, before I go on, let me clarify – I am NOT a people person. On the MBTI, my “I” is 30 out of 30 (and would probably be higher if the scale allowed it). Seriously, you people exhaust me. However, I find the way people think and behave fascinating, I love what I do, and I long ago came to grips with the fact that if I wanted to do what I do I would have to interact with people from time to time. This doesn’t mean I enthusiastically embrace warm and fuzzy – it just means I can adjust my preferences in order to be successful. So when I talk about the importance of empathy, rest assured I’m not coming at it from a kittens and rainbows point of view.
Dictionary.com defines the word thusly:
em·pa·thy [em-puh-thee]: noun the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- Empathize, don’t sympathize: One of the mistakes leaders make is to confuse the two concepts. Sympathy means you agree with the other person’s feelings, and can get you into trouble once you start down the path of validating their hurt feelings because the bus driver made them wait two seconds before opening the door. Remember, empathy is, at its core, an intellectual act – not necessarily emotional.
- Use personal experience: Believe it or not, there was a time when you didn’t know how to do something. Remember what it was like when a teacher (or coach, or boss, or older sibling) took the time to break things down in discrete pieces so you could figure it out? Didn’t you figure it out more quickly? Well, your employees are like that, too. They need you to be able to break things down into digestible chunks so they can learn what it is you already know.
- Shut up and listen: Sometimes leaders get “Ugly American-itis” – when it’s obvious the other person doesn’t understand, the leader just says the same thing louder and more slowly. Shockingly, this doesn’t work. If the other person isn’t on the same page as you, ask them to explain how they see it…and then listen, taking notes if necessary. This gives you the data you need to either support your hypothesis, or to change your mind because you didn’t have all the facts. It also makes the other person feel valued.
- Find value in diversity: Getting back to my geek roots, Star Trek introduced the TV audience to the concept of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), the basis of Vulcan philosophy. The sheer number of variables in the universe makes it logical that multiple outcomes from multiple scenarios are possible. Therefore, to assume only one point of view is the best answer is illogical. If a culture based entirely on the purging of emotion in favor of logic can embrace the concept of empathy, surely YOU can.
- Learn the language: Empathy has a vocabulary associated with it. It is inquiry vs. advocacy. It is paraphrasing and mirroring. Do a little reasearch, hang out with people who seem to be good at it, and start using the words. In coaching, we refer to it as “flipping the switch” – using the right dialogue techniques forces you to think differently. (Language informs thought, people – George Orwell was right.)
- Fake it ’til you make it: I don’t mean be inauthentic. I mean you use the language and techniques of empathy until it feels more natural. If you’re not an empathetic person, it’s going to feel very squishy and uncomfortable at first. Don’t give up! The first time your empathy pays off, you’ll feel that ‘Eureka!’ moment and start to see the value.
Bottom line: Empathy makes you a better leader because it forces you to look at all sides of an issue, consider the impact, and make the best decision based on data. So get over your belief that your job would be so great if it weren’t for the people, and learn how to give a $h!t.