Learn the Greatest Leadership Skill of All

3 Ways to Build Empathy

By Dr. Ranjit Nair, Ph.D.

Decision-making? Persuading others? Coaching? Being creative? Developing others? None of these great and essential leadership competencies or skills can come close to what I believe is the greatest of them all. 

The greatest leadership skill of all time is empathy. No other living organism has the skillset of empathy as much as human beings do. Potentially dolphins, elephants and certain monkey species may have empathetic orientation but the jury is still out on that. Human beings are the most equipped with this skill and have proven its power time and time again. Sadly, though, we do not utilize it enough nor do we maximize its effectiveness to our advantage and, more importantly, to honor, respect, dignify and make others better.

Simply put, empathy is being in the emotion and feelings of others. Empathetic leaders are at ease and effortlessly are able to experience a situation the way another person experiences it. To be empathetic, a true leader has to think beyond themselves and their own concerns. Once these leaders build and appreciate perspectives beyond their own worlds, they begin to realize that there are things in others they discover and revel in. The famous author and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, eloquently put it this way, “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” He was speaking about our innate and powerful ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and build great and lasting relationships. He was speaking of empathy.

Demonstrating empathy is a key tenet of how great leaders lead others because empathy builds trust and leads to a deeper level of understanding. A person who shows and practices empathy is able to effectively deal with difficult or complex situations or issues and develop solutions that the majority of people can appreciate and support. Setting aside our own biases and deconstructing the mental models we set for ourselves is the key to truly hear another person.

Here are three powerful ways to discover, hone, sharpen and nurture empathy:

Eavesdrop on Strangers
Many of us travel and when we do, invariably, we find ourselves in a waiting mode. For example, we may wait in lines, sit at the traffic light or be in the barding area waiting to be called to board a flight. During this seemingly wasted time, empathy can be enhanced. Like going to the gym to build body muscles, these wait situations should be viewed as the “gym for empathy.”  Eavesdropping to the conversation that someone sitting behind you is having helps build empathy and hones the mind to be empathic. Along with enhancing listening skills, by intently trying to imagine what the person you are eavesdropping to might look like physically, where they may be traveling to, what kind of a life they live and what occupation they may have. This imagination and curiosity expands our empathy when we “listen” to people outside our usual social circle, encountering their lives and worldviews which may be very different from our own.

Watch, See, Wonder and Imagine
OK….first, put down that cell phone. Instead of “Googling” someone, or “checking Twitter” or, if you’re really serious, instead of reading your saved online articles while you wait for the train or are stuck in a traffic jam, try and see plain old people around you. Have a sense of curiosity and imagine who they might be, what they might be thinking and feeling, and where they are trying to go right now. Ask yourself, if they are happy or scared. Are they frustrated or confident? Are they smiling or frowning? See if they might be whistling a song or even doing a rendition of an old hit song. Can you tell if they live locally or are from out of town?  Do you think they are having a nice day? Try to actually watch, see, wonder, imagine…..and care.

Live Another’s Life at Work
Native American Eskimos have a fantastic saying: “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.” Many of us sing in the shower pretending to be a rock star idol or pretend to be famous athletes. Sometimes, we even pretend to be James Bond or Wonder Woman. What if we actually did something like this at work?  Experiential empathy is the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of all the ways to practice and build empathetic orientation.  We can expand our empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s work lives. The next time you are at work, try doing the job of another – say, for an hour or two.  Choose a job that is very dissimilar to your own.  For example, if you are a marketing manager, try doing the job of the company custodian or mail room clerk. Not only will you appreciate the life they are living—building empathetic skills along the way—you will make new friends at work and your co-workers will view you in a completely different light.

This new century has brought us the Human Age, or the Age of Empathy. It is our time now to discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming genuinely interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships. Empathy is the single most important leadership skill—much more useful than any other skill—but we must practice it to be effective as leaders. Empathy will lead to greater success personally and professionally and will allow us to become happier the more you practice it.

Happy empathizing!