Are you a truly empathetic leader?

leadership Apr 15, 2022

My eye was caught the other day by a headline: empathy is redefining the way we lead. It was the title of a webinar being offered by the Canadian Management Centre.

It caught my eye because just an hour earlier I'd been reading a blog by a communications expert whose work I really admire, Dr Nick Morgan. And that blog was all about empathy as a core skill for leaders.

Not just a core skill - but a misunderstood skill.

Empathy is a hot topic right now. As Simon Sinek said in his TED Talk 'Why good leaders make you feel safe', you can't just tell people to trust you and expect them to cooperate.

Before we go any further, let's be clear about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy involves understanding another's feelings, from your own perspective. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding WHY they may have those particular feelings.

In the ad for its webinar, the Canadian Management Centre defines empathy as the ability to identify with the emotional state of others in a way that builds connection, creates safety and enables trust.

It went on: "To get results with and through others, the best starting point is understanding what they’re thinking and feeling.  When you understand what is at the crux of their motivation, you’ll know what you need to do to help them offload the emotion so you can access their higher thinking and tap into their potential."

And that's very much in line with the content of the blog by Nick Morgan.

Nick's starting point was a study in the journal of the Association of Psychological Science suggesting that we don’t understand how to be empathetic in the right way.

According to the study, there's a disconnect between what we think leads us to an empathetic understanding of another person, and what actually works in practice.

Here's how Nick Morgan explains it: "What we believe is that we figure out what other people are thinking by studying their facial expressions and body language.  But what actually works better is to put ourselves in their shoes."

In other words, we put too much stock in believing that observing body language is enough.

According to Nick Morgan, just watching for a facial or other physical reaction is too easy.  "Putting ourselves in their proverbial shoes is demanding intellectual and emotional work.  It requires vulnerability, creativity, and something that the psychologists call the ‘theory of mind’ – meaning the ability to realize that not everyone thinks and feels the way we do.  

"This imaginative work is not easy, and I think it is getting harder and harder as our lives move faster and faster.  Why should I slow down my day to get inside the minds of other people?  Far easier to study them briefly and draw my own conclusions based on the evidence of my eyes."

So yes, we do need to be tuned in to body language. Watching the eyes of a speaker will give us cues and clues to help us communicate better.

But it's far better if we can see through those eyes, and truly imagine how problems and opportunities are seen by the other person.