Empathy: We want leaders to have it, employees to behave with it and everyone to display it when interacting in groups. Sadly, it is not innate. The good news is that we can teach people specific behaviors that enable them to gain empathic skills.

Behaviors of empathy can be learned even if someone is not born with the capacity. Think about the way behavioral therapy is used to help someone with autism recognize common social queues even when the reaction is not intuitive. This approach can be developed and used with leaders who struggle with empathy. With knowledge and experiential practice, leaders who struggle with empathy can learn skills and become better at practicing empathic behaviors.

How Can We Do This?

Empathy is about understanding and sharing someone else’s feelings. Many people confuse this with sympathy, which is about having the same feelings as someone else or feeling compassion for the way another person feels. Empathy is important to life experience and how we work together when feelings are involved in getting work done.

Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, frequently speaks on the topic. She describes the “essence of empathy” as, “seeing, hearing and having our needs responded to.” She conducted a study with doctors and patients monitoring participant’s physiology to see whether they were in sync or in discord. She found that our neural networks actually interact with the neural networks of others during interactions, and this helps us understand and appreciate other people’s emotions. Her conclusion led her to do a study that revealed how frequently in the medical community empathy is diminished, but with training, empathetic behaviors could be taught. She came up with specific techniques for medical professionals that improved patient satisfaction and compliance.

As learning professionals, we can apply much of the psychological research about teaching empathy to our corporate classrooms, especially where leadership is concerned. Empathy, from a learning perspective, is will versus skill. Often leaders have been taught that too much empathy inhibits their ability to make concrete decisions. This simply is not true. A good leader will make better decisions if they have empathy. They will recognize that their ability to get work done through others relies on elements of curiosity and genuine interest to understand the impact a situation has on an employee. It is no longer acceptable for leaders to see empathy as a weakness.

How can we as learning leaders raise the bar that drives leaders to success from an empathy perspective? We can teach empathetic behaviors.

Be Present in the Moment

Be mindful and in the moment with people during every interaction. Even people who score low on an empathy scale can get better at this by practicing empathy behaviors, and based on Helen Reiss studies, it works. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers developed a strategy to teach children active listening in their book “Brain Smart: 60 Strategies for Increasing Student Learning.” It’s called HEAR. We can use this practice in our classrooms with adults. It is a good and structured way for people to check themselves when they are preparing to listen or be in the moment with an employee.

Halt: Stop what you are doing or thinking, and clear your mind. Give the person you are interacting with your full attention.

Engage: Turn your head so your right ear is toward the speaker to show that you are engaged.

Anticipate: Look forward to whatever the person is about to say, and be ready to learn something new.

Replay: Think about what is said, and replay it in your mind by analyzing and paraphrasing. This will help you remember.

Understand Your Mood

It’s important for leaders to understand their moods and the impact they have on others. Your mood plays a role in determining your success. If we can teach leaders to be aware of their emotions and what is happening in their own bodies with different triggers, we can teach them to identify with other people’s feelings and moods.

Leaders are often faced with escalated situations. We can start by asking about their tendencies. Is it best to react first or listen first? The “amygdala hijack” coined by Daniel Goleman, which is an immediate emotional response that we later may wish we did not have, is a great talking point. We can share examples of what this looks like. For example, the time Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in the third round of their heavyweight rematch in 1997, or when Marcos Baghdatis smashed tennis racquets at the 2012 Australian Open. There are also a number of compilations of celebrity meltdowns on YouTube to choose from. Although, some are not suitable for work.

Learning professionals can create activities where leaders identify the employees’ feelings, ask questions about them and listen for understanding. This becomes a research and fact-finding mission for a leader instead of simply listening to the emotional employee.

Recognize Your Power

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at University of California Berkley, found that leaders who are not self-aware exhibit behaviors that get increasingly worse the higher they climb. When these leaders become more self-aware and work at focusing on more empathetic behaviors, they become more successful. You can read some of his tips in his article, “Don’t Let Power Corrupt You.” When leaders recognize and understand their power, it is easier for them to understand that they are responsible for the care and development of other people and their experience at work.

There is a direct connection between empathy and people’s ability to learn. In fact, educational research shows that people who receive empathy from others at an early age develop a higher capacity to learn. Empathy helps learning and brain development while simultaneously combating stress, and we know high stress is a deterrent to learning. A leader that understands their power and uses it with a measure of empathy, allows their employees to bring their best selves to work each day. They get more work done through others, because employees feel seen, heard and cared for.

Practice Empathy

Make practicing empathy a habit. Work practicing the behaviors into everyday work, and make a commitment to it. Remember, empathy is a skill not a trait. Thinking of it as a trait will not allow you or your team to develop it organically. Practicing and looking at failures as learning opportunities will get you closer and closer to success. With each interaction, think about what went well and how the opportunity to be empathetic could have gone better. Apologize if you need to; leaders are human, too.

Teaching Empathy with Empathy

Because we are purveyors of learning, we should not forget that we need to consider our own levels of empathy. If we are not teaching empathy with empathy, we are valuing content over people. We must understand where the leaders we are trying to impact are in their learning journey, and engage them with experiential and behavioral content. Just giving them knowledge is not enough. We need to teach the concept and allow them to use it. We need to help them create strategies and plans. We must model empathy in the classroom, and we need to define feelings when there is push back.

Empathy drives retention. We cannot think of empathy as something people have or do not have. Empathy is a skill we must drive and grow.

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