empathy at workIf you want to become a better manager, work on improving your empathy. Ask clarifying questions to understand your people’s situations better. Be sure to focus on emotional cues. Appreciate not only what others are saying, but also how and why they are saying it. Also listen for what’s not being said.

I can’t stress enough how much empathy plays into effective management and leadership. In the work I do coaching executives, the ones who have the most trouble are those who never learned to express care. Without empathy, you will have a tendency to misread other people. You will neglect to ask clarifying questions, and you will miss nonverbal cues. If you listen only to others’ words, facts and figures, you will miss the emotional context of what’s being said.

Research tells us that we remember only seven percent of someone’s message from their words. The rest is communicated through nonverbal cues: facial expressions, body language and tonality. Strict attention to words will mislead you, so make sure that nonverbal communication is consistent with what you’re hearing.

Your biggest tool is asking clarifying questions. Some leaders jump in too soon, because they believe they are intuitively good at quickly assessing a problem. But until questions clarify what the real issues are, you can’t understand the context and emotional components.

The following steps can help you improve your empathy skills. As with other emotional competencies, empathy requires practice, so consider working with an experienced coach if you continue to face obstacles.

1.      Take note of situations in which you demonstrated empathy (versus the times you failed to do so).

2.      Recall times when people’s underlying concerns were not explicitly expressed and/or addressed.

3.      Identify emotions the other person may be experiencing. Explore the possibilities, without assuming your suspicions are true.

4.      Develop a list of questions for your next encounter with this person.

5.      Practice listening without interrupting. Wait until others fully express their points of view before offering your own.

6.      Avoid being defensive. Your goal is to create an open dialogue, during which possibilities can be freely explored.

7.      Allow enough time for people to express their opinions and ideas without judgment.

8.      Practice active listening. Always confirm the meaning of what was said.  Paraphrasing people’s words helps clear up misconceptions and deepens understanding.

9.      Always focus on desired outcomes. Be sure to balance empathy and focus to achieve optimum effectiveness.

10.  Continue to practice this balance of focus, goal-orientation and empathetic listening.

What other suggestions can you think of for improving empathy? I’d love to hear from you.