Empathy & Leadership

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Empathy, or the ability to understand what other people are feeling, has a powerful impact on your ability to lead. In this lesson, we will explore the ways that your empathy can impact your leadership skills.

What are Empathy and Leadership?

Your ability to lead people is impacted by many things. Do you understand the goal? Are you able to do the thing you're trying to lead others to do? Do you care about the goal so much that others can be inspired by your passion? These are all important, but perhaps the most critical quality for effectively leading people is the ability to understand what they are feeling.

Leadership happens when you influence people effectively toward a goal. When you, through some set of qualities that you possess, cause others to want to draw nearer to some desirable ending, you have exercised leadership. It can appear in a two-year-old or a frail grandfather set with illness. All nations, races, creeds, and ethnicities can produce leaders, and are influenced by those who know how to lead. True leadership creates a situation where everyone involved ends up a winner.

Empathy happens when you understand what someone else is feeling. You may not feel the same way, but you understand how they could feel the way they do. For example, maybe a brother, sister, cousin, etc. loses their pet. You might have hated that creature, thinking that it was annoying, loud, and useless. Still, you feel with the one who is experiencing the loss. It is as if you share their experience, and through that sharing draw emotionally closer to them.

When you combine empathy with leadership, you create a powerful mixture that can create effective change. When a person projects to you the sense that they know how you feel, then suddenly you find yourself more interested in them, more willing to trust them, and more willing to follow. The most effective politicians, pastors, salesmen, and swindlers all use this principle to achieve maximum effectiveness among the people they're trying to influence.

Building Empathy to Improve Your Leadership

Perhaps the most important way to show (and develop) empathy is to listen well. When you give someone your complete, undivided attention, you begin to understand what they're really trying to say. Many hidden messages are missed by a busy leader who does not take the time to listen. To listen well:

  • Read body language
  • Listen to the tone of their voice
  • Try to understand the emotions involved in what they're saying
  • Look at the context (supporting environment) behind their message

Your own self-control is critical when you're listening. Never interrupt, dismiss, advise, or change the subject when someone is trying to talk to you.

Once you've learned how to effectively listen, then you can begin to add in a couple of other empathy-enhancing techniques.

  1. Remember names. Generally speaking, a person's name is the sweetest sound he or she knows. Speak their name often, while you're talking together, and say it as if it is a very important word or phrase.
  2. Always be there completely when you're with someone. Deliberately parrying e-mails, phone calls, passing of time, texts, and any other interruption that can happen during a conversation demonstrates how much a person matters to you, and how much you care about how they feel. When you give them your complete attention, you give them a sense of importance, which is very attractive and addicting.
  3. Become genuinely interested in them. Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Deliberately become fascinated with who the person really is.

Attitudes Affect Leadership

It is so easy to react with ''What now?'' when people come to you with problems. Ask yourself, how do you feel about the phone ringing, someone walking in while you're working, people asking questions, or finding out that there's another problem to solve? Are you annoyed? Do you wish they would go away? People can tell when you have negative feelings toward them, and it interferes with a spirit of empathy. Your leadership suffers every time you push people away.

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