March 09, 2015

Empathetic Communication: A Key Leader Skill

According to Daniel Goleman, the five components of emotional intelligenceare self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skills and empathy. Research typically confirms that empathy is a key factor in effectively influencing and leading others.

When you think of empathy what comes to mind?

• Feeling sorry for someone who experienced a death in the family?
• Agreeing with someone who feels they have been wronged in some way?

These sound like empathy, but they are actually sympathy. The two are not the same and probably the reason why empathy is not practiced in the workplace as much as it could be.

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If it's not sympathy, then what is empathy?

Empathy doesn't mean pity or agreement. However, you can listen with empathy by demonstrating that you recognize the facts leading to a feeling and the feeling expressed. This enables the other person to feel heard and understood. More importantly, empathetic communication shows you care about others by being able to put yourself in their shoes.

Effectively demonstrating empathy can defuse negative emotions, particularly during conflict. It's a key skill that rebuilds trust and moves communications forward. You can also demonstrate empathy by responding to positive emotions you observe. An example might sound like this: "Wow, you sound really excited about your promotion!" or "You must be really proud of your daughter's speech award!"

Why should my managers and I care?

Employee Engagement: Empathy encourages employees to express their concerns about organizational improvements and to share new ideas in a safe environment. How much is innovation worth to your organization?

Managing Conflict: How much time do your managers spend managing conflicts within their teams? Imagine how much more they can accomplish if team members understood how to empathize and work more productively together. By coaching their teams to practice empathy, your managers can focus on other priorities.

Customer Service: It's amazing how genuine empathy can remove barriers to communication and build trust with others. Instead of dreading customer complaints or responding with annoyance, how would empathizing with your customers make them feel? Would empathy open the doors for creative problem-solving and stronger bonds with your customers?

How can my managers become more empathetic?

Like any skill, listening with empathy takes practice. In all interactions, you suspend judgment, avoid sarcasm, and listen completely to what the other person is expressing verbally and nonverbally.

Some steps to building empathetic responses with individuals and groups include:

• Hire a coach to work with your managers. At Performex, we use several methods for building empathy including modeling, observing managerial meetings and providing feedback, and even videotaping managers during interactions at our workshops.

• Encourage your managers to listen to understand others from their point of view by putting themselves in their shoes. Ensure they observe body language as well as the words conveyed.

• If your managers are unsure about the feelings expressed, then they can ask questions to clarify what's being said. For example: "You look angry. Are you upset about the new organizational changes in your department?" This gives the other person the opportunity to share concerns.

• When your managers respond, they can identify the facts and feelings expressed. An example would be: "It sounds like you are frustrated by the customer's new deadline."

• Suggest that your managers watch a favorite movie with a coworker or friend and practice identifying the feelings expressed and the facts that led to those feelings.

• Remember, your managers don't have to feel sorry for someone or agree with their feelings; however, they can recognize and acknowledge them so the other person knows they care.

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