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How to Lead with Empathy in the Workplace (and Beyond)

Kesia King
Kesia King

Posted Sep 23, 2021

With the Covid-19 crisis, an economic downturn, and a racial justice movement that has captured our world, there’s no better time for us to embrace and cultivate the skill of empathy. 

According to a study by Management Research Group, empathy is the top competence for good leadership and a significant predictor of success. At its core, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another - to identify with their point of view and feel their emotions. 

Becoming more empathic starts with how we listen. When you practice empathic listening, creativity can flourish, negotiations are more effective, and your relationships with customers and co-workers improve. 

HOW WE LISTEN MATTERS

For a moment, imagine that someone you are in conversation with is sharing details about their favorite city to visit. As you listen, your thoughts might shift to something similar to share – maybe you visited that place a year ago; or your favorite restaurant is in that city; or who have friends who live there. 

This is called “listening for connections”. When someone shares a story, we think about what the story reminds us of, then we share something similar to help us build connections. 

As humans, we’re hardwired to form connections. Finding points of commonality when listening is a way to do this. 

For a lot of people, listening for connections is the default setting. At work, we often do it during negotiations or selling. It’s a very natural way to listen - and while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, it does put us (the listener) in a position of thinking what other people's stories mean to us

Listening with empathy, however, is the opposite. When we listen with empathy, we listen for what the story means to the person who is sharing it

WHY LISTENING EMPATHICALLY MATTERS

When we begin to listen with empathy, we learn what’s important to the person talking. We still form connections, but we’re able to learn much more through deeper, richer conversation. Since listening with empathy is about really understanding the other person across from you, you learn new things through questions you never would have asked otherwise. 

When you change the way you listen from “What does this story mean to me?” to “What does it mean to the other person?” it leads us to new possibilities for conversation. 

The benefits of this are numerous: 

  1. New Insights and learnings about the person you are talking to (who they are, what is important to them)

  2. They feel listened to and cared for as you create a safe environment for people to share and be vulnerable

  3. Understanding perspective can help overcome conflict

  4. Listening empathically can provide a framework for difficult conversations by understanding what the other person is going through

When you begin to listen empathetically, you move from thinking in statements to leading with curiosity and questions. So next time someone is telling you about their favorite place to visit (or something deeper like the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace), practice listening with empathy. It’s not easy, yet cultivating this skill over time will help you build deeper relationships and allow you to become a better leader. 

 

Kesia King

Kesia King is an accomplished business professional who spent most of her early career in product management and marketing at Grainger. In 2018 her side hustle CHOP CHOP Mobile, became her main focus and Kesia dedicated her efforts to helping organizations attract and retain top talent and increase productivity through onsite and mobile, salons and barbershops. In 2020, Kesia joined sr4 Partners as an Organizational Health Consultant, providing facilitation, design and strategy work for clients ranging from high growth start-ups and healthcare companies to nonprofits and legacy educational institutions. She champions and leads much of the diversity, equity and inclusion work for sr4, a core practice area for the organization. Kesia has always taken an interest in empowering people to work through their mental roadblocks and fears, and as a result published her first book in March, entitled F.E.A.R. Face Everything & Recover: The 30-Day Reset to Unlocking Your Full Potential which is available on Amazon.

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