Leading with Empathy: Four Tips

Empathetic leaders are rare.
But they’re irreplaceable.

Empathy is the ability to feel hurt, take another’s perspective, and connect with them. An empathetic connection brings healing, trust, and a deeper relationships with those around you. Here are four tips for leading with empathy:

1. Listen to understand

I’m a horrible listener. I’m a great talker, though. The trouble is that talking rarely lays a good foundation for healing. Here’s the difference: Listen to understand – not to reply. Most of the time, I listen because I’m carefully crafting my response. But addressing hurt isn’t the same thing as a court cross-examination. What I’m about to say isn’t as important as what I understand. Understanding can be tough. Especially for us talker-types. A few ideas:

Ask questions.
Seek clarity.
If there’s a piece of the story missing, ask.
If there’s something you’re curious about, ask.

2. Express resonance

I grew up near an airport. I loved it when airplanes would fly over our house. If the plane was big enough and flying low enough, the plates in the cupboard would shake – resonating with the low frequency of the jet engine. Empathy is like that. It resonates deeply. Remember, when someone opens up to you, they’re taking a calculated risk. They’re risking the chance that you won’t understand – that you’ve never felt what they’re feeling. If they’re feeling loss, confusion, or anger get to a place where you felt a similar emotion and reassure them that you get it. You may have to dive deep, but above all keep it genuine.

3. Be present

Truly resonating with someone means that they have your full attention. In our constant-access world, the gift of attention is one of the rarest around. By giving someone your attention, you’re deliberately sidelining the 1001 other things that are waiting for you: Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, sports scores, news headlines, weather reports, and the list goes on. Empathy makes an exchange: Empathy takes the combined weight of everything you could be doing and gives it all up for the one thing you need to do. Being fully present.

Move your phone off the table.
Turn the TV off.
There’s nothing pressing you for time.
You’re available to open hands.

4. Be honest

I’m the kind of person who likes to try to stay positive. I imagine silver linings where there aren’t any and invent reasons to be hopeful. But the reality is that people appreciate honesty far more than silver linings. Your honesty will affirm that what they’re feeling or thinking is okay. They’re not crazy. They’re not imagining things or emotionally off-base. Honesty isn’t concerned with solving a problem as much as it is giving voice to feelings. Here’s how honesty can sound:

“I just don’t know what to say.”
“Man, that’s tough.”
“I’m so sorry you have to deal with that.”

Empathetic leaders unlock doors.
They’re rare.
But they’re sorely needed.