Know empathy, know leadership

December 19, 2013
Dave Blundell
3 min
Know empathy, know leadership

Our effectiveness and impact as a leader is directly tied to our ability to experience empathy. Whether your leadership is in your home, your place of work, your church, your peers, or anywhere… you will only be able to inspire and influence to the degree that we can feel what other people feel. And while empathy comes easier to some than others, I am also convinced that empathy can be learned. But nothing is learned if it’s not valued.

Leadership without empathy is only a position on an organizational chart. And hierarchical influence is the worst type, but also the easiest to practice. “Because I said so” is terrible leadership. Empathy is relational leadership and your influence will grow to the degree of your shared feelings with someone.

The work “empathy” comes from two Greek words; “en” is translated “in” and “pathos” is translated “feeling or suffering”. What an awesome and powerful word picture! To practice empathy is to be in someone’s feelings or to be in someone’s suffering.

Empathy enables us to see something from someone else’s perspective, which gives us a common starting place to move forward. Empathy prevents judgments and self-centered stereotypes. Empathy stops us from assuming or projecting someone else’s motives. Empathy builds team momentum and direction. Empathy prevents the dangers from an “us and them” mentality. Empathy propels all of us toward generosity and service.

Being in someone’s feelings inspires other-centered actions and words. If empathy is harder for you than others, if emotion is often distant or irrelevant in your thought process, how can you grow empathy?

Here are some starting steps:

  1. Be aware of your own values and preferences as the filter through which you hear and see everyone else. Your values are not the sole determiner of truth or prescribed behavior.
  2. Be determined to ask questions and listen before you make any statements. You can’t enter into someone’s emotions unless you ask questions for understanding.
  3. Be determined to find and identify the emotions of people before their thoughts. We are all emotional beings and our emotions are what connect us to each other. And no one will follow someone they are not connected to.
  4. Be determined not to try and change people in conversations by making statements that reflect your values. We usually want people to change for our benefit rather than theirs; because their changing will somehow make my life easier.
  5. After practicing the previous four steps… now you can cultivate and demonstrate compassion. Compassion is an action moving beyond empathy to relieving someone’s suffering or difficult circumstance.

I can’t think of a more important value and practice in leadership. It is a conversation by conversation choice. Empathy will transform any relationship, home, or organization and will move us forward together to have the kind of influence in our world that we all crave to have.