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What does empathy look like?: Management, Talent and Leadership Development Tips

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Management, Talent and Leadership Development Tips: Empathy
Using Empathy for Management, Talent and Leadership Development

"The ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation."

We know what empathy is, and we know (well, most of us know) how valuable it can be in keeping a team motivated, engaged and productive. Simply put, if you feel your manager puts in the effort to understand your situation, trust is built and you're more likely to put effort in for them in return. That's the theory.

But as we always say at ZEN Coaching, theory is meaningless if we can't put it into practice. Over the years, I've often seen how employees aren't entirely sure how to go about 'doing empathy'. Does it mean caring about something you actually don't care about?

The answer is no, we don't need to fake it, it's not about feeling the same feelings or, as is often mistakenly thought, agreeing with people. It's just about trying to understand and demonstrating your willingness to do so. Using empathy is a key tenet of Management, Talent and Leadership Development.

How do we do that? Well, we can whittle empathy down to its core behavioural components. Specific, concrete steps to take to make sure your team or your colleagues know you're an empathetic individual, with all the benefits that brings. Here's a few behaviours to try if you want to up your empathy quotient and get more engagement and productivity from your employees.

  • Sit up and slightly forward. Nothing signals disinterest more than a slouch. Make sure your body language is upright and engaged and they'll receive it as interest in what they're saying.

  • Maintain your eye contact until the end of the sentence. Particularly if you're delivering a key message or asking a key question. It shows you mean what you say and indicates trust and a willingness to understand. So often as roleplayers, we see the head drop as people get to the uncomfortable part of the conversation. We don't mean constant eye contact either, that would be odd, but just when you are at the key point, the key question, the key moment, keep that eye contact. It seems more genuine that way.

  • Ask one more open question. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to get people to open up. We try once, we get a terse or short reply and don't want to push it. In that case, try one more time than you usually do. Make it an open question and make sure it's not a leading question either. Just be curious. If a question doesn't come to mind, try the TED statements below. In doing so, you demonstrate a desire to understand them better.

Tell more more about that

Explain to me more about how it's been for you

Describe to me what you mean by that

  • Use their words to demonstrate you're listening. You can clarify that you're understanding their position with phrases like these, followed by the words they used:

So what I'm hearing is........

You mentioned there that.......

I'm interested in what you said a moment ago......

  • Nod as you listen and confirm you're listening by verbalising responses like "uh-huh" or "ok" as they talk. It doesn't mean you agree, it just signals to them you're listening. Similarly, phrases like "that must have been tough" or "sounds like a difficult situation" give a clear sign that you're thinking about what it's like for them.

  • Don't interrupt or talk over them. Nothing shuts down a conversation and reduces trust quite like being interrupted. Let them talk, just listen like you would to a friend in the pub. Next questions will naturally come. That's not to say if things are wildly off-topic and they've been talking round the houses for ten minutes you can't steer them back with "Can I take you back to....", but that's rare. More often, we're just thinking about our next question or statement, so resist the urge to jump in too soon.

  • Be curious. Lastly, it's a mindset too. It's an exploration of their situation, just like you do naturally with your friends. Give yourself the task of finding out all about their thoughts and feelings and those questions will flow more easily.

Try these behaviours out. One at a time if need be, you don't need to try them all at once. And remember, you're not faking an interest or having to agree when you don't, you're just exploring and letting them know you're listening.

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