Leading with empathy

CoachHub · 3 June 2022 · 5 min read

Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone”.

These words by Brene Brown are a brilliant description of what empathy is all about. It is a vital leadership competency and, as a leader, having the ability to understand the needs of others and be aware of their feelings and thoughts is fundamental to employee engagement and developing people-centric cultures.

Empathy has of course always been a critical skill for leaders; however, it has taken on a whole new level of meaning and priority in recent years. Leading with empathy plays a big part in cultivating positive relationships and organisational cultures as well as driving and delivering results.

So, what is empathy?

Empathy is about understanding things from someone else’s perspective and imagining ourselves in their position. Practising empathy helps us to connect and relate well with other people in our lives. By being an empathetic leader, we can better ‘read’ another person’s inner state and interpret it without blaming, giving advice or attempting to fix the situation.

Like any other behavioural skill, empathy can be cultivated through intentional effort and practice.

Here are 10 ways that will help you to lead with empathy:

  • Expand your world view

Our world view is a framework of beliefs, values and attitudes which affects everything we perceive, think, feel and do. As we evolve, we can become restricted by the boundaries of what we experience, so constantly expanding our world view will help us to be more empathetic. Expanding our horizons by embracing new experiences will also help us to develop as well-rounded, balanced and inclusive leaders.

  • Put yourself in others’ shoes

To practise empathy there is a very useful skill that can help called ‘perspective taking’. This is about consciously putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagining what challenges they might be facing and how it could be making them think, feel and behave.

This mindset shift helps to ensure that we stay in an empathic state. By attempting to imagine what it would be like to experience what our team member is going through will help us to gain a better understanding of what is happening from their point of view.

  • Challenge assumptions

We all hold unconscious beliefs and bias, and this could well be about various social and identity groups. This bias is triggered by the brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. Often this is influenced by our own background, societal stereotypes and personal experience.

To be truly empathetic we need to constantly be aware of and challenge our biases about people and stereotyping. We may well discover that many of the assumptions we make are based on erroneous information. Educating ourselves and listening to the groups that are affected by this misinformation is an excellent place to start.

  • Be curious 

Being curious enables us to seek out challenges and new experiences so that we can broaden our horizons. Curiosity is the gateway to wisdom and life is never dull for a curious person with a growth mindset. Being curious rather than judgmental about people is a great place to start and finding each member of the team interesting can be the catalyst for some great conversations.

  • Be fully present

Being fully present requires us to make a conscious decision to give each member of the team our undivided attention. So being aware of any potential distractions is important, as well as setting aside our own internal mind chatter so that we can focus on what the other person is saying.

  • Listen actively 

Listening is one of the most powerful and constructive ways that we can demonstrate empathy. When we practise active listening, we are listening with intention and with a deep desire to really hear what the other person is saying. Empathetic leaders take the time to listen and understand each member of their team’s priorities and motivations.

  • Respect silence 

How comfortable are you with a pause in a conversation and a moment of silence?

To be helpful sometimes we may feel the urge to fill the void and jump in to finish people’s sentences, offer them some advice or even interrupt. Silence and allowing time for meaningful pauses in a conversation can be a very powerful way to simply ‘be’ with another person and allow them the time and space to collect their thoughts.

  • Acknowledge emotions 

When we acknowledge something, it means we are recognising its value and importance. Emotional validation involves understanding and showing acceptance of how another person may be thinking and feeling. This helps the person we are empathising with to know that their feelings are being seen, heard and accepted.

Emotional acknowledgment can help us to establish rapport and interpersonal trust. It can also help others to define how the team member may be feeling and encourage them to open up more. By allowing emotions to flow freely it can also help people to release pent-up stress and ultimately feel calmer.

  • Tune into non-verbal communication 

Communication runs far deeper than words alone and during a conversation we may observe the team member dodging eye contact, tensing up or shifting about awkwardly. These are important non-verbal signs, and we can then use our powers of empathy by gently asking the other person to describe what is happening for them. This will encourage the team members to share their feelings openly, knowing that they won’t be judged or criticised.

  • Question empathetically and use empathetic language

Empathetic questioning is asking questions with the intention of seeking to understand how someone is feeling. This helps the other person to express what is really going on and gently probing questions so that it doesn’t end up feeling like an interrogation can also help the person you are leading to understand their own situation better.

The language we use and the tone we adopt is a major step toward cultivating an empathic attitude. Being tactful and diplomatic is very important and this is the subtle and skilful art of handling a delicate interaction with sensitivity and emotional intelligence.

In summary

By being empathetic and understanding we can support the people we lead to feel psychologically safe enough to share openly and honestly. This will also help each member of the team to feel that they are not entirely isolated and enable them to recover and grow stronger in the knowledge that they have the full support of an empathetic leader. ☺

About Liggy Webb

Liggy Webb is an award winning and bestselling author, presenter and international consultant. She is also the founding director of The Learning Architect, an international consortium of behavioural skills specialists. She is recognised as a thought leader on human resilience and works with a wide range of businesses focusing on optimising potential through continual learning and behavioural agility.

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