How To Build Empathy

After yesterday’s robust discussion (a hearty thank you to all that participated), I started thinking about empathy.  As I pointed out in my comments, empathy was a close runner up to the ability to communicate effectively for what I believe is the most important characteristic for a leader.  After reading your comments, I started to think that we were all pretty much in agreement on both characteristics being extremely important for leaders.  I have read more posts than I can easily recall on how to improve your communication skills (in fact I think I wrote a post or two on this topic) but I do not remember ever reading a post on how to be more empathetic.  If it is so important, than why is no one writing about it?  Sure lots of people have written that leaders need to be empathetic, but you can’t just tell somebody that and (poof) they develop empathy.  I guess the question is can I teach someone to be empathetic?  I am certainly going try, so here are my recommendations on how to develop your empathy:

1.       Learn and Use People’s Names: I have mentioned this tip before, and I will very likely mention it again.  Your employees are not nameless faceless drones.  They have names (and probably lives outside of work, but we will get to that in a minute).  Learn their names, and use them every time you see them.  This may sound simple, but I have seen managers make some fairly stupid personnel decisions because they did not know the names of their employees.  It is harder to be mean to people and make arbitrary decisions about personnel cuts when you know people’s names.

2.      Take an interest in people – You have things in common with all of your employees.  Find out what those things are by communicating with them.  Some days I sit down with my employees when they are in the break room and just ask them about their lives.  We might talk about their kids, their spouse, their hopes, their dreams.  Mainly I just listen.  I let them tell me whatever they want.  I try to be an attentive listener so that I can retain as much as possible.  I try to learn their kid’s names, or remember what their spouse does for a living.  This is time well invested in my opinion.  If you just listen then you are going to become more empathetic along the way whether you want to or not.  The more you know about people, the harder it is to not care about them.   

3.      Put yourself in their shoes –I can empathize with someone that is diagnosed with Cancer.  I can imagine how I would feel and the sort of things that would be going through their mind.  I cannot feel their pain completely, but I can empathize if I really think about it.  This is hard because we all react to things a little differently, but for most of us I think putting ourselves in their shoes helps us to know what to say and what not to say.

English: Firefly-shoes.

Can you put yourself in another person’s shoes?

How else can we build empathy?  I really want to hear your suggestions as I think this is an area that a lot of people would like ti improve upon?


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