In leadership, there may be no ability more valuable than empathy. Removing ourselves from our own point of view and seeing things from another’s perspective is a key attribute of effective leaders.
What Empathy Is and Is Not
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are not the same. Sympathy relates to having feelings of sorrow or pity for another person, while empathy describes seeing things from another person’s point of view. Listening with empathy demonstrates to the other side that you heard and understood what they are trying to say.
Why It Matters
After our needs for survival and physical safety, our highest needs are for significance and belonging. We are fundamentally social creatures and being part of a family or tribe are crucial to our sense of security. When somebody demonstrates that they have heard and understood us it builds connection, trust, and a feeling of security. Once our need to be heard is satisfied it can end the cycle of progressively louder shouting and open the door to problem solving and collaboration.
Why It Is Hard
As we act like so many geese squawking to be heard, it can be difficult to take the focus off ourselves long enough to hear and value what others are saying. We want to promote our own point of view, to forward our own agenda, to get what WE want. According to Stephen Covey, our natural conversational responses normally fall into the four categories of evaluating, probing, advising, and interpreting. Until we break out of these four modes we will remain in an endless loop, only able to prevail through dominance.
In the image above some people see a young girl while others see an old woman. It can be hard to change our perspective, but doing so can reveal new understanding and meaning.
Changing the Paradigm
Empathy was identified by Daniel Goleman as one of the five components of emotional intelligence. At the heart of empathy is humility. In this sense, humility means that we see value in others, not a lack of value in ourselves. To have humility and empathy requires us to be secure and confident in ourselves, feeling enough self-validation to validate others by hearing them out and seeking to understand their point of view.
Where It Goes Wrong
There are mechanical prescriptions for empathic listening that involve repeating back what a person has said. This is good to do, but if these techniques are used without genuine care for the other person they just become a form of manipulation, which will likely be detected. This generates distrust and is counterproductive.
Whether it is understanding your crew's needs on a sailboat, a business negotiation, or trying to grasp what protesters are after, caring for other people and taking the time to understand their point of view is a transformational shift. With a foundation of humility and empathic listening we can make the shift from listening-to-reply to listing-to-understand, leading to superior win-win solutions.