When it comes to making sure you and your coworkers are operating at the highest rate of efficiency, there are a ton of factors to consider. Things like communication, cooperation, and leadership are commonly discussed elements of a successful team, but what underlies all of these things is a little thing called empathy. Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, is the ability to experience and relate to thoughts and emotions of people around you, and it is a vital skill often overlooked in the workplace.
Empathy – The Key to Leadership
For some time now, it has been relatively common knowledge that empathy is an essential component of strong relationships. At the same time, research shows that leadership in the workplace has become an increasingly relationship-based role, dependent largely upon your ability to really get the most out of your relationships with others. In today’s increasingly connected world, contact and communication with people from different countries, cultures, and ideologies is common as well. Leaders who have the ability to understand and empathize with others find crossing these divides to be much easier.
In addition to being able to work with diverse people more easily, the empathic leader has a bunch of advantages in other ways, as well. For instance, regardless of the specific setting, it is vital to the success of any project that the people working together believe in and care about the goal towards which they are working. The empathic leader will not only show people that he cares about them, but that he believes in their endeavors and understands the rigors of the task. This last part is especially important, as a strong leader absolutely must have an acute awareness of others. They have to watch for signs of stress and fatigue, and know when their employees or co-workers need a little extra support. Lastly, empathy is a top factor psychologists look for when evaluating a person’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is, research suggests, a strong indicator of leadership ability.
Empathy Can Be Learned
So empathy is important, that much is clear. But it seems like the sort of thing you’re either born with or you aren’t. Fortunately, it can be taught and it can be learned. In fact, even if you are a naturally empathic person, honing these skills is a beneficial practice and can be accomplished through focusing on these five main areas:
Open Discussion – As discussed above, understand and explain to your employees the importance of empathy. Let them know that the best way for them to improve upon this vital skill is to give real time and attention to others, and be open to feedback. For people who are more performance or “numbers” oriented, explain to them the strong correlation between an empathetic workplace and improved work output.
Listening Skills – Listening is a skill which many people neglect or confuse with “hearing”. Listening is an active process which involves withholding judgment, reflecting your understanding of what is being said, asking for clarification, and sharing in dialogue. By practicing these things, you will better understand what your employees or co-workers are saying, thereby increasing your understanding of them.
Walk in Others’ Shoes – The practice of “walking in others’ shoes” involves shifting your perspective and attempting to feel what someone else might be going through. When interacting with others, actively bring into consciousness what you know of the other person’s life experiences and try to imagine what it is like to be in their position at this moment in time. This may be difficult at first, but over time and with practice, this will begin to come naturally.
Compassion – This is an issue of going beyond the surface level when decisions are being made or events are taking place. Take the time to go deeper than just, say, the financial ramifications of business decision or the nuts-and-bolts view of company structure. Think about how these things affect those around you on an individual and emotional level. Be open, allowing time to reflect on these things honestly and compassionately.
Experience Diversity – Take every opportunity you can to involve yourself with different people. Whether they are of a different race, religion, nationality, or age group, interact constantly with people outside your norm. When doing so, do it with an eye towards learning more about who they are, what they believe in, and what their experiences have taught them. The more different people you learn about and come to understand, the greater your capacity for empathy will be.
Teach Empathy. Learn Empathy.
When it comes to improving on areas in your own life or helping others to improve their skillsets, it’s important to take a look at what’s most important. In other words, if you’re going to take time to work on something, it is better if that something is an area which affects nearly all parts of a person’s life. Empathy is such an area. By practicing the tools above, you can improve just about every area of your life, from work to personal relationships to just about anything you can think of. Practice empathy in your daily life, share it with others, and learn to grow together.
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