Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. My husband struggled with empathy for a long time because he believed people should act from logic, not feelings. He didn’t understand that feelings were the driving factor in decision making and action taking.
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking fast, thinking slow, said in an interview with Krista Tippett, “…It is actually completely not possible for a finite human mind to be rational or to obey the axioms of rationality. You’d have to know too much. The difficulty of being consistent in all your beliefs is impossible. And if you are not consistent in all your beliefs, you can be trapped in an inconsistency, and then you are not rational…The way that the mind works, very frequently, is that we start from a decision, or we start from a belief, and then the stories that explain it come to our mind. And the sequence that we have when we think about thinking, that arguments come first and conclusions come later, that sequence is often reversed. Conclusions come first, and rationalizations come later.”
We are connected to our feelings and the perceptions of those feeling. Even if we wanted to (or thought we could), turning off feelings at work is challenging at best and I would argue more likely impossible. It is important to take that into consideration when working with your team.
There is a difference between empathy – trying to understand and acknowledge someone’s feelings – and getting up in their business. It’s important to know why someone is acting the way they are (or not acting at all) and try to empathize. You do not have to take on, own, or even try to solve their problems. Sometimes it’s enough just to be heard. It creates a deeper connection.
A two-way street
Empathy is not a one way street. I attended a leadership training hosted by MediClub in New York City. The presenter, Charlie Jones stressed the importance of empathy and vulnerability. After completing an exercise, Mr. Jones as for the audience to share their experience. One man raised his hand and said that while he appreciated vulnerability and thought he was good at showing empathy to his employees, he did not feel he could show vulnerability to them because it would make him look weak. Mr. Jones asked for a show of hands how many people would consider their boss “weak” if they were to be honest and transparent (ie vulnerable) with what’s going on? Not one hand raised.
Again, there are better ways of communicating feelings and oversharing is not a value add. But when you’re stressed and you don’t have the answer, you can say to your team, “We have this problem and I am under a great deal of stress to solve it. I don’t have the answer, but I believe the answer will come from our team. I believe in our team and I am committed to solving the problem together.” Far more inspiring and connecting than traditional stress-induced reactions that deteriorate morale.
To improve your empathy, try these steps:
- Start a mindfulness practice. If you’re easily distracted, you’ll miss the subtle cues that signal something is amiss. You’ll miss the moments where you could have a deeper connection with another person. You can join me for guided practices here, here, and here.
- Engage active listening. Commit to really listening. If you cannot commit in the moment, ask to set a time to talk when you can be fully present. Watch as you listen; pay attention to body language to notice where something important is not being said.
- Pay attention to how you are feeling. We pick up on other people’s feeling. If you sense a change in how you are feeling while you are listening or observing your team (or a team member), ask yourself what you’re feeling and why.
- Seek feedback. Check in and ask for honest feedback…and be willing to receive the feedback! It’s not enough to do a check in and then resist the feedback. You have to be willing to listen, reflect, and take action. This is a vital quality of an excellent leader.
Take action. Make a commitment to practice the four steps starting today.
Looking for some more 1:1 guidance? Check out my mentoring program. Not sure you’re ready or it’s right for you? No problem. Check out my tea and chocolate chat– it’s an abbreviated mentoring session that simply costs you a bit of chocolate (or tea). It’s done virtually or by phone.
Please be sure to check out and subscribe to my new YouTube channel where I talk about one of the roots of self-sabbotage, as well as a short yoga/mindfulness practice on these topics.