Empathy—the ability to read and understand other’s emotions, needs, and thoughts—is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence and a critical leadership skill. It is what allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals. Empathy enables us to connect with others in a real and meaningful way, which in turn makes us happier—and more effective—at work.
Many people mistakenly believe that empathy—like other emotional intelligence competencies—is something you’re born with or not. But it’s not that simple.
In fact, we all have the capacity for empathy. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran’s studies have helped us understand that we have physical structures in our brains—called mirror neurons—that help us understand others’ experiences and feelings. When you walk into a meeting late where a heated discussion has been taking place and the hairs on your arms stand up, it’s not just that you’ve been able to read the body language in the room and recognized that a fight’s happening. Your mirror neurons are actually reflecting the feelings of the people present. You start feeling as they do—even though you just joined them and haven’t been involved in the fight.
We all know, though, that some people pick up clues well and others are clueless. They misread situations and tread on others’ feelings without awareness—or apology. Are they hopeless? Or, as people often ask me, is it possible to develop empathy? My answer is a resounding yes. Consider a leader of a large media company, who I’ll call Miguel.
He called me up—out of the blue—and said he needed my help developing his emotional intelligence. He had been a top-notch management consultant who joined a client organization. He was known as super-smart and able to figure out how to find profit and weed out waste, so he was put in a senior position in a struggling division for his first role at the company. He quickly became the “golden boy” as financial results soared. Leadership loved it and within a year he was moved to another division where he worked the same magic. After his fourth move, about seven years into his tenure, a senior manager started nosing around. Something just wasn’t right in the divisions Miguel had turned around.
To start with, this smart leader discovered, Miguel’s financial wizardry was short lived. All of the great results that he’d had achieved in each division fell apart within a year or so of his leaving the post. Looking deeper, many of the divisions he had led were actually worse off than before he worked there. Good people had quit. Teams didn’t function. The cultures were toxic. Why? Miguel had put results before relationships over and over again. People felt disrespected and angry. They’d become actively disengaged and were furious at the company for allowing Miguel to treat them as he had.
Before this all came to light, Miguel had been identified as a potential successor to the CEO. Now he was told, “Fix this or you’re gone.” This was when he called me.
Miguel realized what he’d done and that he had put results before relationships every time. In fact, when I asked him, “Do you care about people?” He responded genuinely, “No, I really don’t. I care about results.” It was clear to me—and to Miguel—that he lacked empathy, among other emotional intelligence skills. He’d been told to get better, and he said he wanted to try.
So, we created a practical, skills-building plan. I coached him on reading people. I watched him at meetings and gave him feedback. I pointed out when he was trampling people and when he made them feel valued. Over several months, he made marginal progress. But it wasn’t that hard to see that he was doing what leadership had told him he must—and very little more. Frankly, I felt that I should resign as his coach. At this rate, and with this level of interest and effort, he wasn’t going to truly improve his capacity for empathy. Then, something happened that changed everything.
One particularly hectic Saturday Miguel was working, again, rather than spending time with his kids (as he had promised he would). Before long all hell broke out— the kids were sick of being put on the back burner and they were old enough to tell him so. It was unpleasant, to say the least, and Miguel did what he always did: he promised a fun afternoon in town and then locked himself in his office to finish his work. Things calmed down, they had fun later that day, and Miguel put the incident out of his mind.
But it wasn’t over. After the kids went to sleep, Miguel’s wife tried to explain what he was doing to the family. She tried to get him to see how fed up with being last on his list, how tired she was of dealing with the kids’ feelings of abandonment. Late that night, after hours of Miguel saying things like “How do you think this family survives? I have to work!” his wife turned to him, with sadness, and said, “I’m done. You don’t care about me. You don’t care about the kids. You’re blowing up this family.”
Miguel was shocked. Lose his family? How could that be? No!
Then it hit him like a bolt of lightning: Recently, that senior manager who had found him out had said the exact same thing his wife had, “You’re blowing up your teams.” Talk about a wake-up call.
He heard it. He realized that he had lost sight of what was most important to him—his dream of a future full of warmth and love, financial security and happiness. He knew then that to hold on to his dream he had to develop empathy for his loved ones and his colleagues. He knew he had a long road ahead of him. But, finally, he was ready to learn and change.
First, Miguel fixed things with his family. He also had to re-learn how to stay present with his wife and kids—psychologically—by constantly reminding himself that they were, are, and will always be, his first priority. Realizing that he had a lot of catching up to do, he spent several weeks just watching what was going on at home: What did his kids laugh about? What sparked arguments? What did his wife like to watch on television and which of her friends from work did she talk with socially in the evenings? Observing others is critical component of empathy. He schooled himself on asking more questions and making fewer assumptions, too. Miguel started truly empathizing his wife and kids—seeing them–for the first time in years.
Miguel realized that what he was doing at home was exactly what he needed to do at work: check in with people to see if he truly understood what they were saying; express appreciation to his team; and slow down in meetings and be sure that people were with him. He learned to understand what was going on in people’s minds and hearts and to interpret their body language better, too. He got in touch with the fact that actually, he did like and care about his colleagues. Soon, he was more in tune with what people needed, and eventually, those around him experienced him as warmer, more approachable, and even more fun.
Getting Better at Empathy
Developing empathy requires self-awareness, self-management, patience, endurance, and lots and lots of practice but you can learn it with time and dedication. It starts with having a dream—a vision of the future that means enough for you to put in the hard work needed to change old habits. And, you need to accept how important empathy is at work–and perhaps, as in Miguel’s case, the realization of the damage done by not having it.
Here are a few simple things you can begin to do:
- Observe, listen, and ask questions. Pay attention to people’s body language rather than obsessing about what you’re going to say next. This can be harder than it sounds, because you have to let go of the notion that you know what’s best or have the right answer. You also need to stop assuming that you know what people were thinking and feeling—you probably don’t. And even if you are right, or partly right, there’s always more to learn if you’re quiet and curious.
- Avoid distractions and try to be more fully present when you are with people. This too is difficult for the simple reason that our organizations are insanely distracting. There’s always a deadline looming, a crisis to deal with, or an annoyance to put to rest. All of this takes us out of the moment and puts us into a “sky is falling” mentality. When we are in this state of mind, our bodies are poised for fight-flight—just the opposite of what we need in order to build good relationships. It is very, very tough to get out state. The only way I know to do it is through mindfulness practices like deep breathing and meditation.
- Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is really doing more than one thing with less than your whole brain. That might be fine when you are walking and chewing gum, but it’s not ok when it comes to complex cognitive tasks or dealing with people. If you are writing an email to one person while talking with another, neither one is getting the best of you. And at least one of them knows it.
By doing these things, you set yourself up to learn and practice the deeper behaviors required for empathy—to ask people for feedback about how they perceive you rather than assuming you know; to talk about how people feel rather than dismissing people’s emotions as irrelevant or unimportant; to make them believe you see them and that you care. People want to feel loved and appreciated at work – and if you’re not giving them that, you’re not succeeding as a leader.
This article was originally published on HBR.