Nearly every conversation I find myself in recently involves picking sides. It is as if I am plummeting toward a huge crevasse and I need to decide instantly – do I jump left or right? Liberal or conservative? Community wellness or personal rights? Should my kid play soccer or baseball? Everything is an either-or choice and there is no common ground. That framing reduces our complicated world into a limited-option, multiple choice test. It leaves no room for the nuance and complexities that make us human. But like it or not, we are humans and we lead humans. When we are at our best as leaders, we unite people around a shared goal. Those individuals may not share every single interest but the unifying goal serves as the sweet spot where we all overlap. Our challenge is to protect and expand that shrinking sweet spot. The first step in getting there? Empathy.
Now you may think of empathy as a soft skill, but as anyone who has tried it can tell you, empathy can be as difficult to master as any other leadership skill. First, let’s define empathy. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. The key here is understand. That does not mean to agree with or sympathize with but rather just to understand. Take a moment to think about how freeing that is. There is no right or wrong as you cannot debate someone else’s experience or feelings. It shifts the paradigm from you versus me and by extension us versus them for it to become a collective we. To empathize, you only need to be willing to learn about the experiences of another to better understand why they feel, think, or behave the way they do.
This looks good on paper but how do we practice empathy? Who has the time (or the desire or skill set) to sit down with every person we lead for a therapy session? Our aversion to empathy comes from the fact that it can seem overwhelming. The solution? Reframe your scope. Start small. Break the practice of empathy into 3 actions – listen, learn, lead.
Step 1 – Listen
Find someone in your organization that you typically disagree with (ideally a peer to remove structural power dynamics) and schedule a conversation. Nothing formal. If you are back in person, go for a walk or head to a coffee shop. Get out of the office. If it is virtual, don’t fold the conversation in to another meeting. Make this a separate one just between the two of you.
Your number one priority in this meeting is to listen. Ask open ended questions. You do not want to start with your work conflict but rather try to find some common ground. Are you both married? Do you both have kids? Where did they grow up? Where did they go to school? Ease into it. You are just trying to get to their why. What makes them tick? What leads them to the decisions they make and strategies they pursue? More than anything, be curious. When you open up and truly listen, the natural next step is to want to learn more.
Step 2 – Learn
When we are truly listening to others, we inevitably are learning. We cannot expect what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes but when we listen, we can begin to understand. Remember, learning does not end there. We cannot be passive learners. If we are curious, when the conversation is over, we will still have questions. So, take some time and do some research. Select something the other person said that you do not fully understand and do some research. Does your counterpart identify as LGBTQ+? What are some of the current issues of concern for that community? Do their kids play sports? What is the current state of play in the community? Learn more about the things that are meaningful to them. You don’t have to write a dissertation about it. Just enough to bring something to the next conversation. People want to know that they matter and nothing matters more than the things that are personal to them. You can show others they matter by giving those topics your most valuable resource – time.
Now, this will not solve every conflict or difference of opinion you have with this person. That takes time and continued conversations. But sitting down is a start because empathy is a practice. It is not a one-and-done skill. Not only is it something that evolves between you and other people, it evolves within you. Like any discipline, you get better with practice.
Step 3 – Lead
Once you have started down the path of empathy, you begin to feel the positivity and connection it can create. As a leader, what can we do to make empathy a key component of our organizational culture? While modeling the behavior is key, as we discussed earlier it is inefficient at best and impossible at worst for you to singularly connect with everyone you lead. You must strategically pick who you will directly reach out to for your empathy practice. Who are the influencers in your organization? Not by position but by disposition. Search all levels of the org chart and make sure you have a broad swath of diversity represented (age, department, race, country of origin, etc.). Have honest conversations with these employees highlighting their influence and explaining your desire as well as the data supporting the impact that comes from creating a more empathetic culture throughout the organization. Once they are engaged, they become your empathy proxies. Your impact is raised exponentially because of the impact they have throughout the organization. Share with them how you proactively practice empathy and encourage them to do the same with their own personalization of the practice.
Then, the next piece of rooting empathy in your organization is to measure it. All leaders know “what gets measured, get changed” so make this process of empathy part of regular team and individual reviews. It is certainly not an exact science but it gives accountability for actions toward empathy and emphasizes that it is a learned skill rather than an innate one.
At the end of the day, empathy is often not the first skill that comes to mind when we think of leadership, but during a time filled with such divisiveness it is exactly where we need to start. As leaders, we can help our employees and our organizations rise above the acrimony. Not by silencing individuality but rather by empowering our employees with the tools that allow us understand each other just a little more benevolently.
Written by Ash Beckham.
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