Breaking down R.E.A.L: A deep dive into ‘Empathy’
It’s time to once again dig deep into our series on keeping it R.E.A.L in self leadership. This time round we tackle the letter ‘E’ for empathise – I’ll be talking about what it really means to have empathy for those around you, what strategies you can use to read people better and why taking the time to consider others’ feelings can shine a spotlight on when you need to consider your own.
You’ll probably remember, in my first post on self leadership I said that empathy plays a huge role in my purpose. And realistically, when you break it down, most people’s purpose boils down to a desire to help in some way, whether that’s other people specifically or society at large. And that right there is the very simple reason why the ability to empathise plays a huge role in self leadership, too.
So let’s dig deeper, what does it actually mean to have empathy for someone? Well, Collins Dictionary defines it as “the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own”. Straight away, to me, that’s beautiful. To embrace that skill to the best of your ability is a divine human act and one that I’m proud to say I practice daily. Here’s how...
As a mother
I’m not entirely sure when I realised I had a strong ability to empathise with others. I guess it’s just how I’ve felt for such a long time and, in all honesty, I can’t remember being any other way. What I will say is that since becoming a mother, my ability to empathise has grown… significantly. I think the combined experience of pregnancy and parenthood has taught me to become so much more in tune with who I am, which has ultimately led to a heightened awareness of others. The result? I empathise more often. But perhaps this is simply the effect an overwhelming feeling of love for your child has on you? It’s often said that having a child is like having a piece of your heart walking around this big wide world – accurate right? Perhaps sharing the very best part of you, the thing you love most with the world triggers a level of empathy we’ve previously never known?
As a leader
When it comes to work, I’ve found my time as a leader has taught me a great deal on the subject, too. After all, if you can’t listen to your team, put yourself in their shoes and appreciate their needs and wants, how will you ever succeed in that role? You’re there to lead, yes, but how do you that? By offering support, guidance and inspiration – and you can only do that if you really, truly appreciate your team for who they are, consider what their goals are and how you can help them reach them. I’m not saying empathy is something you can use to your advantage to get ahead in business, but what it can do is build on any relationship. Relationships are built on listening and trust, and to achieve that, empathy is key.
Food for thought
Trying to dial up your empathy skills? Focus on the fact that it’s all about putting yourself in that person’s situation, or at least trying to gain a deeper understanding of the situation by becoming more curious and asking open questions. Then stop and take some time to reflect on those answers. A few body language cues you should be aware of along the way, to help you better understand what people are really feeling beyond the things they’re telling you verbally, include closed arms, slouching and lack of eye contact. Actions really do speak louder than words, and these are just a few examples of what someone might do if they’re not feeling heard, understood and supported. In a way, it’s almost like they’re physically removing themself from the situation, despite what they might be saying out loud.
I’ll close on this final piece of advice. Having empathy for others is a wonderful thing – it can also be mentally and emotionally draining. After all, the more you practice empathy the more frequently you’re imagining what it’s like to feel what someone else is feeling, you then take those feelings on as your own in an effort to come up with a strategy that achieves the best outcome for everyone involved. That’s a lot to take on. To help limit this fatigue, try to be aware of how much you can actually take on from the conversation. By all means, keep listening, keep showing empathy, and keep being patient – all those skills are key to not only being a good leader, but to being a loving partner and nurturing mother too. But take a moment for yourself, if you need to pause, reflect and rest, do it. And remember, you can only control the controllable.