5 Tips to Increasing your Empathy as a Leadership Strategy

By Nicki Gilmour, Executive Coach and Organizational Psychologist

I used to have zero empathy, lots of honest concern for the person in their situation, but zero empathy (and I have the psychometric tests to prove it).

I could not understand why people could not do better, get over it and get on with it. I was judging them against my paradigms built as a child growing up in a terrorist state with an emotionally unavailable parent and a right wing culture telling me I had to be tough to survive( Northern Ireland in the 1980s under Thatcher). My frameworks and values were in play exclusively, not the other person’s frameworks. It was frustrating for me and I am pretty sure it was not a pleasant experience for people I managed and had in my life. Empathy is a leadership skill, because without it you cannot understand what people are feeling which dictates everything from how they perform to how they show up at work attitudinally and to how authentic they are with you.

This is key if you want to get past the golden rule of ‘treat others of treat people how you want to be treated’ and evolve to the platinum rule of “treat others how they want to be treated.”

So, I built, brick by brick and I internalized it and like any muscle flexed it until it became integral to my nature. You can do this also!

Here are 4 quick tips to get started:

1. Ask open questions that allow people to tell you about themselves and their situations in a way that gives them space to do it their way. Don’t interrogate people as building trust comes before, during and after these types of interactions.

2. Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel an emotion for their situation ( such as sorrow and there is distance between you and them emotionally). Empathy is when their emotion is something that you feel with them as it pertains to your own ability to map it internally to your own experiences.

3. Do not limit other people’s emotions to your own range or to your own experiences. Frankly, you might not have the biggest range in the world. And if are very subjective in your ability to interpret events and can only do it through your lens ( see Kegan and Lahey again on the socialized mind in Immunity to Change) then I have found in people who have low EQ but lots of empathy that the person who is seeking to be understood by you on a topic can feel frustrated by the way that you are very keen to share what happened to you as part of the meaning- making and it can drown out the original person. Or that the subjectivity factor completely limits the process, putting the process in or near the concern quadrant if this was a map.

4. Recap and name the emotions you hear as a question not as a statement. In my opinion this is very tied to points 1 and 2 and 3.

5. Use the “magic if” to walk in the other person’s shoes. For example: “If my dad had a stroke this week, would i be able to finish project x today?’.

Practice makes perfect! And imperfection is ok too, your efforts will be appreciated, I am sure.

If you would like to develop your leadership skillst, I would be happy to work with you as your executive coach. Contact me on 646 6882318 or for an exploratory chat