What does real empathy look and sound like

One of my absolute worst cliches to hear is “everything happens for a reason”. What codswallop! Why do people say that? Why, in the face of something awful happening, do people offer such banal trivialities in an attempt to make others feel better? I know humans have a need to find meaning in events, but does everyone really believe that everything happens for a reason? Surely not.

People are fundamentally optimistic and will look back at the path they have travelled after an unfortunate setback, recognise how life changed course and how they have ended up somewhere they hadn’t intended, and acknowledge how they have made the best of things since then. But this doesn’t mean that it happened for a reason. It simply means that they picked themselves up, dusted off, and forged forward. They made the best out of a bad situation and created a new path.

Everything does NOT happen for a reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting we become cold and unfeeling, and not try comfort people when regrettable things happen to them. What I do think we need though, is an understanding of what real empathy is. I think people say that (or many other) pitiful platitude because mastering true empathy is no mean feat, and something very few people are able to truly accomplish. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:

em·​pa·​thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē  \
1the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also the capacity for this

2the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

In other words, empathy is when you can put yourself in someone else’s position, both on an emotional and intellectual level. Empathy is one of the key elements and base building blocks of emotional intelligence.

And empathy is important. In the workplace. At home. In all relationships. With all people.

Empathy is intuitive, but it is nonetheless something you can work on and acquire. People with high levels of empathy are skilled at understanding a situation from another person’s perspective and reacting with compassion.

The workplace needs more empathy and more empathetic leaders. Deloitte conducted a study and found that many people believe that organizations have new leadership needs. Eighty percent of the respondents to (their) survey (reported) that they think that 21st-century leadership has unique and new requirements that are important or very important to their organization’s success. Topics such as inclusion, fairness, social responsibility, understanding the role of automation, and leading in a network were not part of the leadership manifesto a decade ago. And in the midst of these changes, many organizations are not satisfied with their leadership programs. Only 25 percent of (their) respondents (said) they are effectively building digital leaders, and only 30 percent (said) they are effectively developing leaders to meet evolving challenges.*1.

Now more than ever, organisations need to hire and develop more effective managers and leaders who are both capable of moving their organization forward, as well as cultivating vital leadership competencies. Traditional management strategies are still required, but new leaders need to be able to look beyond those traditional strategies and encompass less traditional leadership skills that are equally important for the success of organisations. But while organisations want these new leadership competencies, they are still predominantly promoting traditional models of leadership.

One of those skills, of course, is empathy.

Daniel Goleman identified five key elements of empathy:

  1. Understanding Others
  2. Developing Others
  3. Having a Service Orientation
  4. Leveraging Diversity
  5. Political Awareness

Leaders are being asked to work more collaboratively across networks of teams. This means they not only need to take charge of rapid change, and engage with external and internal colleagues, but they also need to be developing skills that help them effectively navigate people. It is a fact that successful leaders must be more “person-focused” and able to work well with people from different teams, departments, countries, cultures, and backgrounds.

And dealing with people requires empathy.

Empathy is not always easy, and may at times feel impossible, but by learning a few key skills and a little practice, we can work towards more empathetic behaviour. Practice things such as:

  1. paying attention to people, recognising their emotions, and identifying their expressions.
  2. showing a real interest in people’s lives – their needs, hopes and dreams.
  3. being willing to help others – the more open to people you are perceived to be, the more they will see that you recognise them as a whole person, not simply the role you are assigned at work. Leaders should be able to support team members who are experiencing personal problems, while remaining professional.
  4. showing compassion for people’s difficulties.

If you can start practicing those simple 4 steps, you will be well on your way to becoming an empathetic expert. Empathetic leadership can be learnt. As a leader, well, as any human really, developing these skills should be a priority if you want to create relationships built on trust, connection, and open communication

So next time the words “everything happens for a reason” are about to come out your mouth, stop for a second and try find a better way to say it. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and ask yourself what you would want to hear if it was you. This is how you master empathy. Saying, “gosh, I am so sorry. That must be so difficult for you,” is a great deal more meaningful than “everything happens for a reason”.

I will leave you with some food for thought about empathy in the world in generally, in the words of Barack Obama (2006) who said,

I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Yours, in empathy,

*1 https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2019/21st-century-leadership-challenges-and-development.html)


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