It’s so great to have you back!
Our last blog post centered around motivation, the 3rd theme in our emotional intelligence (EQ) series. This week, we’re thrilled to chat with you all about the 4th theme: Empathy.
Martha: This 4th theme, empathy, is one of my personal favorites. In all our work with Myers Briggs and StrengthsFinders, empathy clocks in as one of my “top 5.” I think it’s important to talk about empathy as it can be a very powerful attribute within the workplace. Leaders who have a high sense of empathy thoughtfully consider the feelings of others when making decisions. Now, this doesn’t mean that these leaders don’t have to make difficult decisions or that they don’t make people upset — they do. In fact, strong leadership is shown when good decisions have to be made in stressful situations. The difference here is the approach. When a good leader makes a tough decision, they have done so only after thinking through the impact it will have on those affected by it. And that thoughtfulness is presented in the delivery of that news. This ties back to our conversation on strategic communication — empathy plays a vital role in terms of giving feedback and working through that decision-making process.
“Empathy does not equal sympathy.”
Claressa: Right. As a leader, by exhibiting empathy, you’re simply meeting people where they are. You have an understanding of “where a person is,” and you can gauge your interactions with that person. As you said: you can strategize. Maybe it’s the right time to approach something, maybe it’s not. You’re reading people, and you’re meeting them at their current level — not looking down on them from your own. Which brings up an important point: Empathy does not equal sympathy.
Martha: Empathy is having an understanding of where somebody is in a situation and how they got there; visualizing what that scenario looks like. Empathy is having an understanding while not necessarily agreeing. That is a major distinction between empathy and sympathy. When you have sympathy for somebody, you can feel that emotional connection that in a way that can be unhealthy — you can get pulled in too far. And while there is a place for sympathy, falling too far into the mindset of another can be dangerous in work and leadership. As a leader, you must coach people — you must guide and help them reach a decision and allow them to see the path they are supposed to take. But if you cannot distinguish and differentiate their pitfalls and possibly misguided decision-making, it’s hard to lead someone in the right direction. That’s a very dangerous place for a leader. Your role is to understand where they are and where they are coming from, but to stay aware of the difference between right and wrong.
Claressa: This leads us in a slightly different direction: teams. We often emphasize that every person matters; each person is an asset to an organization. When you add up each, important individual, what do you get? A team. So, when we talk about a leader who exhibits a strong sense of empathy, we’re talking about someone who works to understand the viewpoints of everyone on that team… who is taking into consideration a number of things: what the team members are saying, what they have to lend to the team, and the input that they are giving. And while all of those ideas may not be used, they are being heard. Everybody has a sense of ownership and an empathetic leader allows that type of interaction.
Martha: Absolutely. These empathetic leaders are going to be looking at a lot of factors and allowing those discussions to take place. But they are also looking for subtle things like tone, body language, language barriers, and ethnic differences. They are able to see through some of those things and know where everybody on their team is. To see if there are roadblocks, or questions, and really try to understand and recognize those subtle cues. So, when sitting in a meeting for example, these leaders are able to recognize a questioning look or body language that communicates misunderstanding. Picking up on these subtleties allows a leader to make sure their team is not only engaged, but on board and ready to move forward together.
“The ability to understand the messages between unspoken words and strategically know your team then lends to coaching opportunities.”
Claressa: The ability to understand the messages between unspoken words and strategically know your team then lends to coaching opportunities. Being able to look at external factors and discern the right time to push a team member or a team forward, and knowing when it’s time to hold back allows empathy to impact a team in a positive way. This keeps a team interested and engaged in an organization. They want to continue to be part of that team because essentially, their leader is approaching them from an empathetic standpoint.
Martha: You mentioned external factors — the beauty of emotional intelligence is that these traits and themes can be learned and used as needed. For example, if you have a leader who shows empathy through clarifying questions and working toward understanding, they are acting as a role model. So, when their team goes out into the world, dealing with clients, patients, or any type of external person, they have the tools needed to make sure that those people are happy, satisfied, and have understanding.
And what’s our takeaway this time?
Martha: Empathy is a powerful tool when it comes to internal workings: giving effective feedback, knowing when to push, knowing when to hold off. It’s also powerful in an external environment: reading your customers and understanding their subtle cues. Empathy is used constantly. It’s something thing that can be learned, and it’s an effective communication tool when dealing with a variety of people.