Personal admiration and frustration are the main drivers for this blog.

Admiration because I deeply respect and admire people capable of being truly and spontaneously empathic. Frustration because I find that it still takes too much effort for myself to be that way…
It’s often in simple things. A few years ago in summertime I visited the Antwerp ZOO (Belgium) with my wife and my now 5 and a half years old son. We bought my son an ice cream and it took him only a few minutes to drop it on the ground… Tears, lots of tears.
My first reflex was: “No problem, that was not on purpose, those things happen, we’ll buy a new one”.
His first reflex did not seem to be one of happiness as he continued pointing at the spot on the ground that used to be his ice cream. And started crying even harder.

That’s when my wife took over. She seemed to:

  • understand that he fist needed to go though a “grieving” process about his old cream, before being able to accept a new one.
  • succeed in going together with him, as if she were in his shoes, through that process
  • succeed, last but not least, in calming him down and let him return to “reason”

Don’t ask me how she did it, but she did. My part of the game was to provide a new ice cream, also known as the solution for the problem. He gladly accepted and even said thank you (which made my day). Now I would be glad to learn something about what empathy is and how to develop it.

Empathy

I see empathy as the ability to see things from the other person’s point of view — to be able to “walk in someone else’s shoes“.. When I google for definitions, this is also what I mostly get as result)
You don’t only need it towards 5 year old kids. You also need it in the professional world. Of course managers and leaders must keep the focus and guide people to goal completion, but focus alone can result in undesirable consequences if not counter-balanced by empathy. Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of goals. Focus and empathy will.

According to Daniel Goleman empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work:

  • Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
  • Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
  • Developing others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
  • Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through diverse people
  • Political awareness: Reading the political and social currents in an organization

When empathic skills are high, one is more likely to inspire the troops. When a manager understands his/her people and communicates that to them, he/she is more liked and respected. That is how practicing empathy results in better performance. When a manager is respected, the people they lead are more likely to go the extra mile. Empathy and focus need to be balanced, and when they are, managing skills are optimally effective.

Developing Empathy

How can you learn to be effectively empathic, if you are one of those task-oriented managers who is primarily focused on achievement and solutions?
The good news is that your achievement orientation and focusing abilities will help you in acquiring empathy skills. The bad news is that it may not be natural at first. Fortunately, empathy is a learned capability and like other competencies, it can be acquired. If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.

According to a recent white paper by William A. Gentry, Weber and Sadri, organizations can encourage a more empathic work place and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of simple ways:

  • Talk about empathy.

    Let managers know that empathy matters. Though task-oriented skills like monitoring, planning, controlling and commanding performance or “making the numbers” are important, understanding, caring, and developing others is just as important, if not more important, particularly in today’s workforce. Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn, enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.

    I like this suggestion of the authors. I believe and observe empathy is not enough embedded yet in many company’s cultures, in the way people work together. It’s still too much a skill that is talked about in trainings and workshops, and when you ask for how intensively it’s being applied in daily life, people are hesitating to talk about it, or become very quiet… Talking about empathy, or should we say daring to talk about it, may effect in its becoming more and more part of the normal way of working together.

  • Teach listening skills. 

    To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners. Skilled listeners let others know that they are being heard, and they express understanding of concerns and problems. When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected and trust can grow.

    I believe active listening is an absolute key condition for making turn into a success whatever we are trying to work on with other people. So certainly when empathy is necessary to enable collaboration, it cannot be recommended enough.

  • Encourage genuine perspective-taking.

    Managers consistently should put themselves in the other person’s place. As Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird famously said: “You can never understand someone unless you understand their point-of-view, climb in that person’s skin or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.” For managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees. It also can be applied to solving problems, managing conflicting, or driving innovation.

  • Cultivate compassion. 

    Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the affects that business decisions have on employees, customers and communities. Go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.

    I also like this one very much, because if we want people to talk about empathy and about how important it is, and if we want them to effectively integrate it in their daily lifes, top leadership needs to support, sponsor and cultivate compassion as a valuable attitude.

  • Support global managers.

    Working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences. Empathy generates an interest in and appreciation for others, paving the way to more productive working relationships.
    When managers increase their awareness and understanding of empathy (particularly in their cultural context) they can identify behaviors they can improve and situations where showing their empathy could make a difference.
    As managers hone their empathy skills through listening, perspective-taking, and compassion, they are improving their leadership effectiveness and increasing the chances of success in the job.

The ice cream

Returning to my son and his ice cream, I think I could have helped myself if I would have applied “listening” and “compassion”.
But then again, the temptation to skip these time and energy consuming steps is so huge when the solution is so clear and close… I will probably not be able to listen and be compassionate every time an ice cream case occurs.
I guess my ambition should be somewhere in the middle: do an effort to enter in his world, with the new ice cream not yet in my hands or head, but with the money to buy him already in my heart…

It’s not about the Ice Cream. It’s about Empathy.

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