While I was getting my Masters degree in Counseling Psychology, we had a mantra – empathy creates space. At the time, I am not sure I fully understood the complexity of those three simple words. However, over the last twenty years I have learned that empathy creates an environment where people feel understood and listened to. It creates a space that allows people to be who they are and open to new thoughts and ideas. The concept of empathy simply means the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s about being open to the concept that what someone else experiences, is not the same as what you experience – that the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others are different than your own. And that is not only ok, but critical to understanding who they are and how they perceive the world.
Why is this important? Why is empathy something that you should care about as a leader?
Take for example a layoff of several employees. Because of how each employee is experiencing their world, they will each have a different reaction to the information you are presenting. Creating a script to deliver your information, without adding in space for listening and reacting, would not only create an unsuccessful meeting, it could lead to outright anger and resentment. Going through a bulleted list of information, without showing care or concern for the person’s reaction, will be seen as anything from cold and heartless to patronizing and superior. However taking time to listen and react will make the person feel heard and, more importantly, it will create space for them to feel understood.
Taking time to actively listen and respond during a stressful situation may seem daunting. It may even seem impossible. Afterall, you are delivering a difficult message, this is hard enough for you to get through without worrying about stopping to listen and reflect on the other person. And while that may seem true, stopping to listen and reflect on the other person will mean the difference between a successful, although difficult conversation, and a communication breakdown. My previous post, “Avoiding the Pitfalls of Making it All About You”, gives some helpful tips for concentrating on your employee and staying focused on the message. Which in turn will help your employee stay focused on processing their feelings and moving forward.
Empathy is a critical skill for leadership. SHRM, the national Society for Human Resource Management, often seen as a thought leader in HR, recently published an article discussing why empathetic leaders are more effective. In that article they referenced a study conducted by DDI, Development Dimensions International, entitled High Resolution Leadership. DDI found that empathy was the only interaction skill that consistently positively correlated with all five areas of job performance they were examining, including: overall performance, decision making, coaching, engaging, and, planning and organizing. Meaning, empathy does not only create space for growth and understanding in personal relationships, it creates space for success.
Practicing empathy should be a daily task. Honing your skill of creating space for others to feel heard and listened to will significantly increase your ability to connect.
During your day, take time to practice one (or more) of the following:
- Turn off your phone, or better yet leave it in another room, and have a conversation for 10 minutes. Spending 10 minutes without distraction will allow you to truly concentrate on the other person.
- Practice having a conversation where you only focus on the other person. Listen, ask questions, react to the information they are presenting, but do not offer any information about yourself or your experiences. (This one is much more difficult than it may sound.)
- Practice active listening. Concentrate your focus on the person you are speaking with. Attempt to focus only on the present and what they are communicating. Avoid spending your time formulating your next response in your head while the other person is speaking.
Mastering the skill of empathy during everyday communication, will help you create space during much more difficult communication, as it will come naturally to you. Practice the mantra, empathy creates space, and begin to create space within your relationships.