Every human lives his own reality. A reality that is conditioned by upbringing, experience, social environment, beliefs, values, the path traversed. This is the only reality we will ever know to the last detail. When we enter relationships, this reality shapes a filter through which we experience and value others. If we want to know the reality of others in a genuine way, through the limitations of our own filter, we need to turn on empathy, our psychological ability to empathize with another person’s reality, often explained by the parable of ‘walking in another’s shoes’.
Empathy is thus an innate given that allows us to understand both the context and the inner state of the other; and is a subtle thread with which we weave genuine relationships and trusting connections.
Empathy is an indisputable ability of great leaders and a condition that should be met by all who lead people. Why? Simply because we are human beings and not just the roles we carry and the results we create. Every professional, every individual entering the role of leading others, must be aware of the significance of the accompanying transition at the level of responsibility – from the responsibility to achieve direct results to the responsibility for people who create results. Likewise, each organization must be aware of its share of responsibility to provide the appropriate knowledge, time, and opportunity for a gradual transition into leadership role.
People like to follow role models and are willing to learn from older co-workers and especially leaders, as long as we don’t have faith in our abilities overinflated. Nelson Mandela was a leader who manifested his greatness with empathy, among other things. He said that he had been brought-up in leadership role since he was a child. His father was a tribal chief and he learned from him how to lead with empathy.
In leading, Mandela followed two rules, passed on to him by his father: 1) he understood his position as sitting in a circle, equal to each other – on an eye-to-eye level – even when standing on stage and also in ‘oval offices’, and 2) he always spoke last.
The latter rule was in no way encouraged by the ‘importance of the last speaker’, which is often observed in less great leaders. It was motivated by the awareness that we can quickly get caught up in ignoring others’ voice once we say what we think. Speaking last carries a multi-layered value: it sharpens our conscious presence and focus on listening, which evokes a sense of being heard and involvement, and it opens up the possibility of making a better choice and decision based on different views and considerations. Priceless! For the leader and for all team members.
Three levels and two traps of empathy
Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has dedicated his life to researching nonverbal behavioural patterns, distinguishes three levels of empathy.
The first level is cognitive empathy, which means having the ability to understand the human fellow at the level of his thinking and perception of the situation. It is therefore about the ability to hear a different perspective. From a leadership standpoint, this level of empathy provides us with support e.g. for successful negotiation and employee motivation. Ekman also illuminates the dark side or the first trap that can be expressed in manipulation, in the abuse of this ability to achieve a goal in the absence of concern for the consequences of the well-being of others.
The second level of empathy is emotional empathy, ie the ability to see the inner state of the interlocutor. This demands from us the ability to evoke the emotional state first within ourselves. For example, when we see that a co-worker, despite trying, does not move from a standstill, we will understand his inner state of frustration much more quickly through recalling our own similar experience. This kind of openness is a condition for establishing a deeper connection, which at the same time represents another trap or danger if we don’t command our emotional world. When we are unable to clearly delineate the pain of another with our own experience, we can be overwhelmed by unwelcome stress. This is why emotional stability is such an important trait of leaders. In leaders who do not have this maturity, we often see an invisible shield, expressed as detachment, inaccessibility, or non-involvement, resulting in shallow relationships, weak influence, and a feeling in others that we don’t care about them.
The third and at the same time the deepest level of empathy is compassion. Compassion is deeper than understanding the perspective of another and deeper than empathizing with the other person’s emotional state. It means not only ‘putting on someone else’s shoes’, but also walking in them from the office to home, perhaps to a sick child, helpless parents or to his past in a desire to understand why he has such a different view of the situation than yours. Compassion triggers our spontaneous and unconditional response after service. Brené Brown, a researcher on the power of vulnerability, describes compassion with a situation where someone finds themselves in a ‘hole’.
A compassionate response is to climb into the hole to the person in it and not yell into it, “Helooooo, what’s wrong with you being in the hole?”
The condition for entering this level is allowing ourselves to be seen ‘merely’ as a human being and not as a role. Sounds risky? Honestly, I’ve never heard of an abuse of compassion. Perhaps because there is too little of it, or simply because there is no such risk at this level of human connection.
Empathy is a choice
Empathy is a choice and is a decision we make the moment we address, for example, a team member who has not achieved a set goal for two quarters. Will you address him as follows: “Peter, you have been under the plan for half a year. If this continues, I can only tell you that your future is uncertain.” OR like this: “Peter, I see you haven’t been achieving your plan for half a year. I’m worried about you. Can we talk? When do you have time?” We can develop empathy and thus deepen our sensitivity to better understand others as well as ourselves. So, what are the BUILDING BLOCKS OF EMPATHY?
1) Genuine interest in others
A genuine interest in others is – in other words – overcoming self-obsession.
The world does not revolve around us and we cannot do much on our own. As a leader, you need to be driven by interest and concern for people; who they are, how they live, what they like doing, what they dream about, how they look at the world, why they think the way they think. Moreover, you need to have clarity about what you need and what you can and should do to provide others with good conditions in which they will willingly contribute, create, and develop. Only through learning about the perspectives of others can we create points of contact that will be good starting line for a common path forward.
Empathic listening is a deep level of listening that goes beyond just understanding the message. It is conditioned by the desire to understand the person’s condition, his feelings, to clarify the reasons, motivation and intention behind a certain decision, act, or behaviour. When I mention listening, I also mean listening, that is, an activity that we do not interrupt with speech;).
Why is this so hard to achieve? Largely due to a ‘natural error’ or a mismatch between our brain’s ability to receive information and the speed of speech. Our brains are capable of processing 450 words per minute, while the speed of our speech is on average 120 words per minute. This discrepancy allows our brains to use three-quarters of their ability of presence on their own. They love to jump to conclusions, to judge, to seek confirmation of our point, and when they perceive it, they drift into the spinning of other thoughts.
So, in order to strengthen our ability to listen empathetically, we need to train ourselves! Awareness of this discrepancy is a good starting point. When we perceive that we are no longer attentive, we can ensure our focus by observing nonverbal cues or creating questions that will deepen our understanding and provide us with a holistic picture.
3) Eye to eye
Empathy allows us to look at the world through another person’s perspective and thus enriches our view. It also opens space for us – to express our worries and concerns and thus relieve our inner space. Empathy is NOT a one-way process, but an exchange, it is a mutual experience that happens on a deeper level – through form and formality, eye to eye, on the level of humility. Turning on empathy helps us all transcend gaps between WE and YOU or experiencing others as a problem on the way of achieving our own goals. Subjective reality becomes common human experience through the lever of empathy; and leadership based on empathy can only make a positive contribution to such an experience.
Every human, every situation, every decision, and every experience has just as many truths as there are observers. By switching on empathy, we get the opportunity to see different realities, and when empathy becomes our chosen way of leading and living, it rewards us with the realization that these realities are not really that different. We realize that all people have similar life aspirations, that we do not differ much in our desires, that we are all sometimes at the top and sometimes at the bottom, and that in the end of the day we all like to remember those leaders who helped us pick up, with whom we celebrated successes, and from which we learned – also empathy.
This time the musical accompaniment to the reading is contributed by Duke Ellington, a jazz pianist and one of the most successful jazz composers and conductors of all time. The title of the song from 1931 Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) can be meaningfully tailored to the column theme while listening to a performance with Ella Fitzgerald. Enjoy!