How empathic are you?

As a coach I work with powerful, successful high achievers. I also work with people who are all of those and are also inspiring. Inspiring for me to work with but more importantly, inspiring for their teams to be with and follow.  While ‘what makes an inspiring leader?’ is an important and useful question to explore, the answer is mutli dimensional and worthy of a comprehensive and robust exploration.  In this post I will focus on just one aspect of this question, or rather, part of the answer.

Part of the answer is “Empathy” . Great and inspiring leaders have empathy. But just what is that? What does that mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as   “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”

The Collins dictionary says “power of understanding,imaginatively entering into, anothers feelings”

Sounds simple enough but I wondered how often most leaders today consider stepping into another persons feelings. Feelings?! Both of these definitions also point to not just feeling but having the ‘ability’ or ‘power of understanding’ So potentially a person could have the ability or understanding to be empathic, does that mean they are?  How often do you as a leader model empathy?

I was watching a video of  Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfillment. It is an hour long video with so many useful ideas in the leadership and workplace context. His talk with a focus on focus through building mindfulness included a discussion about leaders and empathy.

He broke it down to 3 kinds of empathy. These 3 kinds of empathy were wrapped up in 3 areas of focus

  • Inner focus – self awareness, managing self, awareness of own values, beliefs. That is, a ‘rudder’ or compass from which to operate and make decisions.
  • Others focus – knowing and understanding what is happening for others.
  • Outer focus – being aware of what else is going on ‘outside’ (in the market for example)empathetic-listening-300x202

Here in this blog we talk a lot about self awareness, values and beliefs  and so on. That is, the inner self and an area that always offers a place to keep growing new muscle. For this post though let’s focus on the ‘others’ and this is where the idea of 3 types of empathy are so useful. They are:

  • Cognitive Empathy – this is about really understanding others, how they see the world, what their ‘model’ of the world is. Knowing how to talk and communicate with those others in such a way that leads to better performance.
  • Emotional Empathy – where an immediate sense of what is going on for others is felt.
  • Empathic Concern – knowing how others are thinking and feeling AND is predisposed and prepared to help.

I think we have all seen and met leaders, managers who might meet the requirements of the first type, cognitive empathy and maybe even the 2nd as well, but is lacking in the 3rd. For example, the manager or leader might be superb at hitting targets or delivering on budgets but has no care for others, that is, no empathic concern.  With this type of gap in a leaders skills they are unlikely to have inspired teams passionately following them. It is more likely to lead to teams leaving them! People are more likely to leave their managers rather than their company.

So as a leader, of yourself in your own life, or in the workplace how do rate yourself on those three types of empathy?  What steps did you take to not only build your empathy muscle, but what made you aware of it as a leadership imperative? Is it an imperative?

Keen to hear your take on this. Please reply below.

Here is the link to Daniel Golemans video. It is worth the time spent.

Gai Foskett is one of two Master Certified Coaches in New Zealand. Gai specialises in executive leadership coaching.
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