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Leading with empathy

What is empathy? Why is it so important? Here are four ways you can work toward empathy.

5 min read




Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Pamela McLean.

Experienced coaches and leaders are almost always equipped with key skill sets needed to perform in their role. Yet we’ve all happened upon very smart leaders or coaches who are simply not easy to connect with—something is missing, and without this something, it’s hard to work together well. The common missing link is often empathy.

Turns out our skills are the easy stuff, but an essential meta-skill like empathy requires us to dig deeper. Whether a leader or an executive coach, we’ve all honed a wide array of skills that serve our role — project planning, strategy building, a great collection of questions, good contracting skills — skills that can easily be learned and rapidly become second nature.

It’s often a bit harder to learn the meta-skills required to be great at the how of what we do — those higher-order skills that shape how we show up, connect, engage, and lead the way. Our meta-skills are under the surface and harder to assess and grow; yet these “higher-level” skills shape who we are in our work and either serve us or become barriers to our success.

One meta-skill that is a pivotal differentiator is empathy. Our ability to connect with others is vital to our success as a coach or a leader. When we connect, we create the conditions for important conversations to unfold — and when this occurs, our work improves.

Could you amplify your empathy?  Here are four small steps that can help:

1. Step into the shoes of another without walking in them

How often do you find yourself listening to someone sharing a story and find yourself thinking about a similar experience in your own life? Stop and listen to the other through their experience, not yours! Understand through inquiry what a particular situation is like for the other, not how you would deal with it. Step into their shoes for a moment and appreciate what this might be like for them. Nothing to solve, nothing to rescue—just the reality that your connection will be vastly increased when you see and hear the other’s experience and respond from a connected place.

2. Calibrate your empathy

Ever had the experience of telling someone about something that is keeping you awake at night and they brush it off almost not hearing your words, quickly moving on to another topic? Too little or too much empathy creates a disconnect. Each of us needs to find the right balance of empathy. Whether we over-empathize and care too much, or completely miss the opportunity to connect with empathy, the result is similar—we miss the opportunity to build a working relationship. Finding our equilibrium and noticing where we tend to land is served by conscious attention to how we connect when we are in conversations that matter. 

3. Take care of yourself

Turns out there is an important link between taking care of ourselves and being there for others! One way we build more empathy for others is by taking better care of ourselves and building our own resilience. Self-care is more than an annual vacation or a glass of wine at the end of the day; it’s the daily ways we step back and tune into when we need a rest, more sleep, a walk, or a moment to unwind. This act of connecting to our own needs better equips us to attend to the needs of another.

4. Disrupt yourself

We increase our capacity to engage with empathy when we broaden our experiences and reduce our tendency to rush to judgments! Disrupting ourselves in little ways in our weekly routines as well as bigger ways in life—where we go, who we spend time with, and what new learning we take on—serves to expand our view of the world and grow our empathy. When we get out of our comfort zone, try something new, and step into a space that is largely unknown to us, we build resilience and increase our capacity to empathize with a broader range of situations and experiences.



Pamela McLean, PhD, is CEO and co-founder of Hudson Institute of Coaching, a coaching firm providing a full suite of coaching services to organizations and leaders. Master coach and clinical psychologist, McLean’s latest book is “Self as Coach, Self as Leader.” Her previous books include “The Completely Revised Handbook of Coaching” and “LifeForward.”

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