It’s Men’s Health Week in Australia. I wanted to re-share a piece I wrote on how empathy is not only a beautiful thing but a powerful tool for leaders. Biggest takeout? Empathy can be learned. Like most bIokes, I struggled with this until my time at Lifeline, where we were taught empathy-by-numbers. The good news. It works!
I’m currently doing a lot of exec mentoring work. I am struck by the high levels of stress I see in so many of my mentees. Corporate is a tough place right now. There’s a relentless pressure to ‘perform’ – to do more with less, and faster. Many execs are routinely working 50, 60 and even 70 hour weeks in their attempt to keep up and ‘deliver’.
In this pressure cooker of expectation, it’s unsurprising that many of the ‘soft’ skills are overlooked. The key one is empathy. I find that many men in particular (though not exclusively) struggle to be empathetic. ‘Soft stuff’ doesn’t come easily. The overriding ‘get shit done’ business imperative absolves them from the need to challenge this. But they are missing out. Empathy is not only good for the soul, it’s key to leading both ourselves and others.
I think we convince ourselves that we either ‘are’, or ‘are not’ empathetic. This is a cop-out. We’re all capable of empathy – some of us just have to work at it. I know because I’m one of them. My wife, a counsellor, is wonderfully empathetic. It’s innate in her. She ‘feels’ others need first and ‘thinks’ second.
For me, it’s a recently-learned process. I man the phones for Lifeline, the leading response agency for Australians in crisis. As part of their excellent training, I was taught to be empathetic-by-numbers. This involves responding to a caller’s situation by acknowledging first how they must be feeling. So rather than rush to judge or solve a caller’s situation (my typical rational ‘male’ response), I’ll recognize and respond to the emotion that sits behind it. I say things like:
“I could see how that may be distressing for you”
“Wow, it sounds as if you’ve had a tough day, would you like us to talk about that?”
In truth, it sometimes feels forced (though never false). But here’s the thing – IT WORKS! The act of empathizing, however clumsy it may feel, never fails to elicit a response. In this sense, I ‘think’ first and then ‘feel’ the emotional response second. It’s like an echo that immediately forms a powerful, intimate and personal connection. As Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid puts it,
‘Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.’
Empathy as a leadership tool
In leadership jargon, we often talk about engagement, collaboration and motivation. Developing our empathy is a fantastic way to build the emotional connections that underpin all of these. To do so, we must make the time to genuinely inquire about how our team members and the people and events that are important to them are going. Oh, and we need to listen too! This is both good for us and the bottom-line. As Stephen Covey wrote:
‘When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.’
Give it a crack
It’s easy to fall into the trap of ever-increasing busyness. Authentically engaging with those around you by creating the time and headspace to genuinely connect is undoubtedly a smarter and more pleasurable approach.
If empathy doesn’t come easily, I’d really encourage you to experiment along the lines I suggest. Your staff will appreciate the effort, even if it initially feels a bit mechanical. I’m finding it gets easier, is personally rewarding and undoubtedly helps me to get the best out of those I work with.
That’s got to be worth a try right?