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5 Practical Things Leaders Can do to Develop Empathy Skills

Oct 24, 2016
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Empathy. This simple word is full of potential and has the ability to move us towards our core purpose as humans. Regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural or religious backgrounds, at our core, we all have one desire, to belong. Our lives are a constant journey to find significance and security not in things, but in others. But for many the word “empathy” is greatly misunderstood. While empathy is a right brain activity, it is far from being a touchy-feely topic. In order for leaders and business owners to succeed in the “connection economy,” developing empathy skills is essential.

As humans, we connect with each other in a number of ways and at different levels. The deepest being emotional. Emotions are the most powerful force in the universe. But emotions were never meant to be bottled up and pushed down. They were meant to be shared and experienced. The issues for much of the West comes from a worldview that the display of emotion is a sign of weakness. As a result, we have pushed our true selves ever inward and disconnected ourselves from our core desire. In order to connect with those we love, work with, and service we must learn how to embrace our own and others' emotions.

 
Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another's situation, feelings, and motives. Unlike sympathy, which is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune, empathy seeks to see the world from another perspective and connect with them where they are. It’s also more than trying to see yourself in their shoes. Empathy is about connecting.  It’s about trying to understand where they are coming from and why they feel the way the do. 
 

Why this is important.

 
We have lost the ability to connect. In business and in our personal lives, more and more people are adopting the “why me” attitude. This victim mindset has crippled our culture and forced division like never before. We are losing the fight for empathy and we must fight back. Empathy is a learned skill and like any skill, if you don't use it, you lose it. We need leaders, forerunners and ruckus makers to stand up for humanity; to learn how to use empathy to combat selfishness and ignorance and to make the change in the world that we want to see. 
 
Action is the foundational key to all success. - Pablo Picasso
 

Empathy without action is dead.

 
If we are going to be able to use empathy for a bigger purpose, we must put it into action. Empathy is now a verb. Without practice, we cannot learn. Without action, we cannot succeed. It is not enough to just empathize with others, we must use that feeling to spur us into action. 
 
Activating our empathy will provide us with a channel to share our message and heart like never before. Humans are emotional creatures. In order to move them, you must speak to the core of their being. Throughout history, we see all great leaders use empathy, not just to understand those they lead, but as a medium to breathe life into their vision. Here are 5 simple things you can start doing today to develop your empathy skills and help you start connecting with those who matter the most. 
 

1. Listen – Really listen to people.

This means using your ears, eyes, and heart. Pay attention to their body language, the tone of their voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context. Often times what we say and what we mean are very different things. Another key to listening is not interrupting. Even if you don’t agree, don't dismiss their concerns offhand. Never rush to give advice. Don't change the subject. Allow the person to whom you are listening to have their moment.

 

2. Tune in to non-verbal communication.


If we are going to better understand what people are thinking and feeling, we need to look at how they communicate non-verbally. For most people, this is the most common way they communicate what they think or feel. The reason is, many of us are afraid to say what’s on our mind. This causes internal conflict within the person. When your feelings and words are not in agreement the body will often show the truth through non-verbal communication. 

Practice the "93 percent rule”. According to a study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message people receive when communicating about feelings and attitudes. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate is contained in our tone of voice and body language. 
 

3. Be fully present when you are with people.


This is one of the hardest things to do in today’s “connected world.” It’s easy to believe we can multi-task, but the sad truth is, we can’t. None of us. So, don’t check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. How would you feel if your boss did that to you?

4. Encourage people to speak their minds.


Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, to speak their minds in meetings. Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about encouraging them to be confident in their role and giving them the tools to succeed. Giving people a safe place to speak their minds and challenge ideas will benefit the team as a whole. You don’t have to take every idea that is presented, but giving your team a place to speak their mind will build trust and connection to the overall vision.
 

5. Give genuine recognition and praise.

Have you ever been given a half-hearted “thank you”? You probably would have rather they never said anything.  Pay attention to what people in your business are doing. Catch them doing the right things. Then, when you recognize them, take the time to make your words genuine and memorable. Empathy is a skill. The right supramarginal gyrus is an emotional and thinking “muscle" in the brain that becomes stronger the more we use it. 

 
As we move further and further into the connection economy, leaders and business owners must learn to develop empathy and use it on a daily basis. At the end of the day, we work with and for people. People who have real needs and emotions. Cultivating our empathy skills will help us inspire our team members, create marketing messages that connect, and make our sales process more human. I want to encourage you to try some of these suggestions and see the reactions of those you come in contact with. I believe you will notice some amazing results.
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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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