During my studies, most of my leadership essays involved the topic of Emotional Intelligence in some way. One key element of Emotional Intelligence is Empathy, the skill to feel what others feel. The power of empathy in leadership enables us to relate to and truly connect with the people around us.
I am fascinated by the impact that emotional intelligence has on our leadership effectiveness. Once I have become more self-aware, more self-regulated, more empathic and more relationally active, I have seen a massive change in my communication, conflict management, motivation, and delegation skills, etc.
The word Empathy is only a recent addition to the English dictionary and is often confused with sympathy, which was added in the late 16th century.
Empathy comes from the Greek word Empatheia, which means ‘in-feeling’.
Sympathy comes from the Greek word Sumpatheia, which means ‘with-feeling’.
While both are appropriate at times, Empathy is considered to be more powerful than sympathy.
Sympathy acknowledges the pain and feels bad for you; Empathy feels it with you.
Sympathy sends a greeting card; Empathy sits with you.
In a study of cancer patients, sympathy was considered as a rather pitiful response from people that seemed to lack understanding.
Empathy, on the other hand, was described as “an affective response that acknowledges and attempts to understand an individual’s suffering through emotional resonance” (imagining to walk in their shoes). (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0269216316663499)
According to Paul Ekman, as mentioned by Daniel Goleman, there are three types of Empathy.
Figure 1 Three Types of Empathy
Cognitive Empathy is KNOWING how someone feels and what they might be thinking. It is also called perspective-taking, which helps to motivate people to give their best.
Whether we know how someone feels depends on how well we know them and/or if we have experienced what they are going through.
However, it is important not always to assume what people feel. It is worth asking when appropriate.
For example, not getting the promotion might only disappoint one person while it might devastate another.
Knowing where your people are at makes a big difference to your leadership. Empathy is critical for leaders.
Emotional Empathy is FEELING what someone feels and understanding what goes on in their inner emotional world.
This might sound very ‘touchy-feely’ but emotional Empathy is what connects you with your people.
In order to feel what others feel, we first need to connect with our own emotions.
Unfortunately, showing our feelings has been underappreciated in leadership. But feelings are part of our human nature and we need to be aware to show empathy in leadership.
If we are not in touch with our feelings, we miss out on truly connecting with others.
This does not mean we should wear our heart on our sleeves, that is surely inappropriate.
Coming back to my topic from last week, active listening plays an essential role in Empathy.
Most often, we actually don’t have to say much, just be there and listen, which is harder than it sounds. As leaders, we want to solve problems, fix people and move forward.
However, in moments of both grief and joy, it can be powerful when we as leaders take the time to sit and listen or dance and celebrate.
One of my previous bosses was actually better at hearing his staff out when they are sad. When there was something to celebrate, he would cut it short and make sure we get back to work.
Compassionate Empathy is not only knowing and feeling what someone feels but also BEING MOVED TO ACTION when needed.
Taking the time to sit and listen or celebrate is one way to show our empathy in leadership. Giving our staff time off, sending flowers or organising a cake are other ways to show that we feel with them.
When I went through a divorce many years ago, I was still a trainee to become a regional area manager. Since it was almost the time to get my own area, I asked my boss in which region I should look for an apartment.
He immediately knew that my marriage must have ended. He did not ask any annoying questions, just asked if I was ok, and told me that he would get back to me regarding my area within the next few days.
Sometimes, Empathy can look like that scenario with my boss. That is why knowing our people is crucial for effective leadership.
Less can be more. I have found that sometimes saying the wrong things is worse than saying nothing.
While this might come naturally to you, evaluate how well you do Empathy in leadership, whether in sad or joyful moments in your team:
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Looking forward to hearing from you.
Happy Tuesday! (or as always, whatever day you’re reading this)