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The Most Misunderstood—and Crucial—Skill Every Leader Needs

by Erwin Lennertz

Empathy is not SympathyI recently moved back to Europe from Singapore after three-and-a-half years and have been reflecting on what I learned during my time there.

Despite my cross-cultural experience, built over the years working in many different countries in Europe and Middle East, I still slammed into a few cultural brick walls in Singapore. I could make a nice list of situations that were frustrating at that moment, but hilarious when I think back on them. I asked myself how I managed to overcome the cultural barriers I faced and went back to the moment I shifted gears. I concluded I had been focusing on understanding the culture and trying to adapt accordingly—without the success I was looking for. Many times, I thought, "I used to be good at this! What's going on?"

The problem? I was focusing on cultural elements, trying to understand and act accordingly. What I wasn't doing was empathizing with everyone I met.

Once I understood this, I started focusing more on the people around me, listening to better understand their drives and motives, and seeing the world through their eyes without necessarily agreeing or copying behavior. Once people recognized I understood their needs, feelings, challenges, and fears, I was able to build bridges and set things in motion.

It helped me to remain authentic, even in difficult situations.

Empathy does not equal sympathy

It was comforting to know that the leaders I worked with had the same struggles with being empathetic. I wasn't the only one trying to find the way out of the desert. Many I met referred to empathy as soft—not a soft skill, but a soft way of leading.

To be fair to all these leaders who tried to convince me of this way of looking at it, none of them had ever seen or felt the true power of empathy. It's understandable to think empathy is just "being soft" when you've only seen examples of people who confused empathy with sympathy.

An eye-opener for many of us is the realization that you can fully empathize with someone, truly understand why a person thinks what he or she thinks, feels what he or she feels, says what he or she says, or does what he or she does, without agreeing. People don't want your approval or validation. What they need is for you to hear them and understand them.

Learning empathy

Can you learn to empathize or is this only a gift possessed by the happy few who were born with it? Not every person will win a gold medal in the Olympics, but everyone can get better at this through focus and training by focusing on three key things:

1. Asking the right questions.

2. Investing more time and effort in listening.

3. Making sure the other person knows they're understood.

Empathy doesn't stop there, though.

Without follow-up action, you'll leave the person in the same place. You need to know all the things you can do to support and help a person with all the insights you have gained. If you understand the barrier, you can effectively explore next steps. Once you learn to be (more) empathetic, you need to do something with the insights and trust you've built.

Empathizing with people and taking actionable next steps can be ongoing and consistent. Not crying with the wolves but building solid bridges. All of us can shift the needle from subconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent in empathizing with people. And even though you move from a great place to be ("I don't know that I'm doing something wrong") to the worst place to be ("I'm aware I'm doing something wrong") it's that initial painful awareness that can motivate and help you to become consciously competent—and maybe even unconsciously competent.

When you nurture your empathy skills, you will enable your team to instill a growth mindset, see change embraced, create a culture of innovation, see people adapt faster in the digital era, and increase the level of engagement and ownership.

Many leaders around the world crack their brains every day on these challenges, often to the level of frustration of themselves and others. Imagine how their lives could change for the better if they could reduce this stress.

Eventually, you'll discover that, by being an empathetic leader, you create a great place to be for many people-and you become an incredible leader in the process.

Read DDI research on the critical role empathy plays in effective leadership.

Erwin Lennertz is a Consulting Manager for DDI in Europe and is based in Germany. When he's not fully engaged with helping leaders grow themselves, their people, and their businesses, Erwin loves to walk around with his camera to capture the world through different lenses, and enjoys to continuously brew a cocktail of high- and low-energy activities like running and yoga, working and reflecting. He is a passionate explorer who loves to enjoy the moment.

Posted: 24 Apr, 2019,
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