How to Develop Skills in Empathy

Understand Your Biases and How They Affect Others
How to Put Yourself “in Their Shoes” – Skills in Empathy
Additional Perspectives on Developing Skills in Empathy

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Understand Your Biases and How They Affect Others

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

Your biases play a major role in how you perceive others. Your perceptions are your reality, whether they are the reality for someone else or not. Differences in perception between you and others can make the difference between successful leadership and a complete disaster. So know your own biases! For example:

  • Do you believe that leaders should “take charge” and lead from the front of the organization? If so, you might encounter frustration and resistance when working with others who believe that leaders should lead from the middle.
  • Do you believe that others should just “shut up and listen to you?” If so, they will probably only do what you say – and no more – until their frustration is overwhelming and they leave.
  • Do you believe that meetings should start and end on time? If so, you will certainly be frustrated with people from cultures that place far less emphasis on time.
  • Do you believe that most problems would be solved if people just did “what they were supposed to do”? What if people really do not know what they are supposed to do?

How to Put Yourself “in Their Shoes” – Skills in Empathy

What Is Empathy? Why Is It So Important?

Empathy is the ability to accurately put yourself “in someone else’s shoes” – to understand the other’s situation, perceptions and feelings from their point of view – and to be able to communicate that understanding back to the other person. Empathy is a critical skill for you to have as a leader. It contributes to an accurate understanding of your employees, their perceptions and concerns. It also enhances your communication skills because you can sense what others want to know and if they are getting it from you or not. Ideally, your employees can learn skills in empathy from you, thereby helping them to become more effective leaders, managers and supervisors themselves.

Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy. Sympathy involves actually being affected by the other person’s perceptions, opinions and feelings. For example, if an employee is frustrated and sad, the sympathetic leader would experience the same emotions, resulting in the leader many times struggling with the same issues as the employee. Thus, sympathy can actually get in the way of effective leading.

Guidelines to Develop Empathy

1. Experience the major differences among people.

One of the best examples of strong skills in empathy is people who have traveled or worked in multicultural environments. They have learned that the way they see and experience things is often different from others. People with little or no skills in empathy might have an intellectual awareness of these differences. However, until they actually experience these differences, their skills in empathy will probably remain quite limited.

2. Learn to identify your own feelings – develop some emotional intelligence.

Many of us are so “processed” and “sophisticated” about feelings that we cannot readily identify them in ourselves, much less in others. For example, we might perceive thoughts to be the same as feelings. So when someone asks you how you feel about a project, you might respond, “I think we have a lot to do.” Or, we might not distinguish between related emotions, for example, between frustration and irritability or happiness and excitement.

3. Regularly ask others for their perspectives and/or feelings regarding a situation.

Silently compare their responses to what you might have thought they would be. This approach not only helps you to sharpen your own empathic skills, but also helps you to learn more about your employees.

Additional Perspectives on Developing Skills in Empathy

Empathy
Empathy Versus Sympathy
Developing Empathic Skills
Developing Your Skills in Empathy
Is Empathy a Learned Skill?
Steps in Developing One's Empathic Skills
Empathy -- the Often Hidden Quality of Leadership and Business Management Success Stories

Also see
Building Trust
Communications (Interpersonal)
Communications (Organizational)
Communications (Writing)
Conflict (Interpersonal)
Etiquette (Manners)
Handling Difficult People
Valuing Diversity
Negotiating
Office Politics

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Library's Coaching Blog
Library's Crisis Management Blog
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