Developing Empathy: The Missing Link To Better Leadership and Communication


Can empathy be developed among leaders? It’s one of the common questions I get when dealing with corporate and mid-sized business teams.

I was in a corporate meeting the other day working through some things with a C-Suite team and quite frankly, things went sideways.

There is always that one person that is harder to get along with, the one that doesn’t seem to want to get onboard with the movement of the company or to even see themselves for what they really are.

This can often leave the rest of the team feeling frustrated and confused on how to get some traction and movement with the “fly in the ointment,” leaving the team feeling discouraged.

The way your team handles these kinds of leaders is important, and can really make or break the success of the team. It requires a ton of empathy and self control from the rest of the team to manage, among twenty other things, but for today let’s dive into what empathy looks like and see if it is something that can be developed in these kinds of leaders.

In personal relationships and in businesses, when things go sideways our brain’s first instinct is to fight. Not physically, but yelling and arguing which can quickly escalate a conflict. And boy did we get into that the other day!

The reason this happens is because our amygdala is triggered- causing fight or flight chemicals to be sent through our body. Our brains are also wired with what philosophers call a “war metaphor” where our brain believes that this is a fight to the death rather than a discussion of logic, facts, and opinions.

In the case of a business setting, unlike being chased from a bear, status is what we are fighting for, and we don’t want to lose.

But this does not have to be the case. The secret to this is empathy. If you can tap into your empathy, you will see that disagreements will end pleasantly, with satisfaction on both sides. Additionally, you will enhance your ability to build strong, lasting relationships with others!

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

Think of it this way — when you are in an argument, you likely have a hard time seeing the other side’s point of view. But, when you elevate your empathy, you are able to better understand where they are coming from.

A key connection here is to seek to understand the other person’s point of view. When you come in with the motivation to seek to understand rather than “win” you’ve now created the possibility of a resolution much faster.

Similarly, situations where someone is acting ‘off’ can cause feelings of frustration due to the disconnect between the two of you. However, when you empathize with the other person, you are better able to understand how they are feeling, resulting in a better relationship.

Here are our top tips for tapping into your empathetic side:

Make active listening a priority
Before you can empathize with how another person is feeling, you must first be able to listen and recognize how they are feeling.

This really requires presence, so this isn’t listening while checking your email. This is active, fully engaged listening to understand, not to answer.

Also, make an effort to notice the signals, or body language, that someone is giving off that may indicate the feelings they are experiencing.

Anger is generally an easy one to detect on people, but if you have someone who is great at hiding their emotions they’re going to reveal these emotions in a much sutler way. Look for small changes in their forehead, if they’re pursing their lips, or their brow is furrowed!

However, it can be hard to recognize how another person is feeling if your own feelings get in the way. If you are focusing too much of your attention on how you are feeling (rather than actively listening to understand someone) and how you can communicate this to the other person, you run the risk of not leaving enough room to understand how the other person is feeling.

So, next time you are in a conversation with someone, be sure to practice active listening skills and optimize your effective communication skills.

2. Don’t make meaning about their feelings

Just because someone is feeling something, say it’s anger or frustration, doesn’t mean you have to make it have meaning about you and who you are.

Oftentimes we take other people’s feelings personally, resulting in us getting emotionally charged and retaliating back with blame or deflection instead of simply affirming the other person’s feelings.

We do this to essentially save face. One of the basic human needs is to be accepted by our community, whether that be a personal or business community, so we will do everything in our power subconsciously to “stay in the herd.” When we are being approached with something negative we may have done, we instantly move into that survival mode.

You can mitigate some of this response by knowing what they’re feeling doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a failure or whatever meaning you may have attached to their feelings.

The more you can disengage from having an emotional response to their emotional response, the less likely the conversation will get elevated into an argument.

3. Share your feelings

Empathy is not only about recognizing how another person is feeling, but going a step further and putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine what the other person feels like and really experience it. No rational human being wants other people to hurt, so when we really seek to understand the other person and what their experience was, it can heighten your ability significantly to empathize with them.

Adopting the emotions of the other person will allow you to really embrace and sit in their emotions. This will lead to a higher level of understanding not only how they are feeling, but also indicate to them that they do not have to experience these emotions alone.

Remember the basic need of being in community?? You fulfill this here!

4. Make yourself vulnerable

Empathetic connections are a two-way-street. Allowing yourself to fully take on another person’s emotions will strengthen your relationship with them, but making yourself vulnerable will amplify this connection.

Sharing your experiences with others creates opportunities for them to empathize with you, thus giving them the opportunity to give you the gift of empathy themselves.

By experiencing empathy from another person, you will strengthen your empathic skills by experiencing the value of empathy when it is reflected back onto yourself, and by gaining comfort in navigating difficult or emotionally charged conversations with others.

5. Take action and offer to help

While feeling someone else’s pain may enhance a sense of belonging and understanding, it does not maximize your opportunity.

One of my favorite questions to ask someone is, “How can I best support you in this?”

It’s a brilliant question that I can guarantee will stop some people in their tracks. They’re not used to having someone truly desire to support them through their messy stuff, so offering support not only shows you have heard them well, but that you have enough empathy to actually help them through it.

By empathizing with others, you can better identify what others need and are empowered to do something about it, in turn empowering the other person as well, elevating them to their best potential.

These tools are effective for beginning your journey to a more empathetic self, but it doesn’t stop here! Practice makes perfect. By applying these skills in everyday life, you will surely become a more empathetic person in no time!

Some of these skills may be difficult to develop if you do not have the right mindset. And quite frankly, it’s difficult to do alone with a full team of people.

Luckily for you, we here at Modig Leadership can help you shift your mindset and develop the skills necessary to become a more empathetic individual! Be sure to reach out to us at hello@modigleadership.com to learn more about how we can help support you!

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