Understanding and practicing empathy is a key ingredient in building relationships and trust. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone is feeling. If someone is having a bad day, you understand how it makes him feel. Since you’ve had bad days, you can relate it to the feelings he likely has. Empathy requires a genuine interest in those you are leading. You cannot have empathy if you do not truly care about those around you.
I am not a touchy-feely person and I personally struggle with empathy. I tend to be robotic and non-emotional and it can make me very unrelatable. Empathy equates to relatability. As a leader, you must be relatable to inspire people. Directness and being blunt will only get you so far. Take some of that directness and swap it out for empathy and see what happens. People will know you care because they see that you care. When they know you care, they will want to work hard for you and the team.
There are two ways to develop empathy. Listening and asking questions. We were born with two ears and one mouth, so you should do more listening than question asking. Allowing team members to tell you what’s on their mind, whether they are having a bad day or just need someone to talk to is a great way to show empathy. Allow your team member to get everything off his chest or explain why something was not done a certain way. After he is done speaking, ask a few follow-up questions. This ensures that you fully grasp what he is saying, clears up any confusion and shows the person that you care. If you didn’t care, why would you be asking questions!?
Be wary. Empathy is different from sympathy. One can be empathetic without being sympathetic. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone. An example that I like to describe the two is when someone shows up to work late. The employee may be late because he forgot to set an alarm or slept through his alarm. A manager showing empathy may say something like, “That sounds frustrating, I hate when that happens. It’s happened to me before and is embarrassing.” A manager showing sympathy may say something along the lines of, “I am so sorry that happened to you, that’s totally not fair. It wasn’t your fault.”
Can you see the difference? If you were in charge of this person, what would you do?
Empathy allows us to hold people accountable, it is the more objective of the two. “I’ve had this happen to me and I can confirm it sucks.” You aren’t excusing or validating the behavior, just saying that it sucks.
Sympathy is more subjective, it’s validating the behavior. Feeling sorry for someone takes the power from the leader and puts it into the hands of the subordinate. “That’s not fair that happened to you. It wasn’t your fault.” Then whose fault was it? At the end of the day and putting feelings aside, the employee did not show up on time. Things happen, I get it, but that action needs to be dealt with and handled appropriately. As a SSBS leader, remember empathy>sympathy.