Empathy – The Art of Giving a $h*t (or at least acting like you do)

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.

kittensNow, 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.

How ’bout that? The intellectual identification…. Basically, empathy is all about the intellectual ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see things from their perspective. It doesn’t mean that you have to feel what they feel, give them a hug (HR asks you to avoid that), or even feel emotions about it. It simply means you are not a self-centered jerk all the time.
Hey, it’s not your fault. One of the struggles of being a leader is that you have always been rewarded for being really good at something – either you’re super smart, good at problem solving, one heck of a suck up – whatever it might be, you were the best at it at the time. This consistent reward for know-it-all behavior has uniquely conditioned you to NOT see things from the same perspective as other people. You’re used to making connections faster than those who report to you. You’re supposed to. It’s your job. But it also makes you a little bit of an asshole when you show off, so you have to figure out when it’s appropriate to share your sagacity, and when it’s better to back off and see it from the other person’s perspective.
In my past, I worked for a company whose CEO was very smart and had built the industry practically from scratch. But he had zero empathy…he simply couldn’t figure out why people didn’t prioritize the same way he did, didn’t make decisions the same way he did, or lived the same way he did. This lack of empathy created a leadership model that rewarded people who operated the same way, even to the point of viewing empathy as a weakness. Worse, it bred a “take it or leave it” culture at the company, and not surprisingly a lot of employees decided to leave it. So many amazingly talented people left that company because leadership saw empathy as a “soft” skill rather than another critical thinking tool to reach common ground in discussions.
Empathy is a key component in marketing, sellling, training, coaching, negotiation, conflict management, meetings – any time more than one opinion could be expressed. Unless you can put yourself in another person’s shoes to try and understand what might motivate them to do something, you can’t possibly be successful. Okay, let me amend that – in a world of people who think EXACTLY like you, you would be wildly successful. Know of that world? No? Right, then let’s take a look at ways that you can start using empathy to be a more successful leader:
  • 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.

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