Even during the pandemic, star athletes physically and psychologically prepare for their next athletic challenge. Just as athletes prepare for marathons, triathlons, the gridiron and other physical contests, leaders need to prepare for difficult or challenging situations. Today, many leaders and managers tell us that they’re afraid to start a conversation or dialogue about racial injustice and other sensitive topics because they don’t know what to say or how to say it.
Even well-intentioned leaders have made mistakes. Such as the CEO who during a town hall meeting asked for questions and then became defensive. Or the group of senior leaders who put out the blanket statement, “everyone in our division is willing to speak up,” when people of color and women just told HR that they didn’t feel safe bringing up an unfair hiring policy. Or the leader who told us that he didn’t say anything to his team because his boss already sent an email to everyone.
Our research suggests that effective leaders are those who build personal relationships, know when to say something, and effectively demonstrate empathy. The most courageous leaders have overcome their fears and want to learn and practice what to say and how to say it. Rather than make assumptions, leaders who model radical empathy actively seek to understand what others are feeling.
Empathy – ability to put yourself in the place of another and be able to identify, understand and share their feelings (put yourself in their shoes)
Radical Empathy – ability to positively engage with someone who may have different beliefs from you, accept their fluctuating emotions and work to re-express (paraphrase) the others’ beliefs and feelings
Think of a time when someone, who was trying to be helpful, said the wrong thing. It may have come across as a platitude, a cliché or even mean. Rather than trying to minimize the person’s pain with phrases like, “It will all work out in the end,” “Look on the bright side…” or “This could be a blessing…,” consider what you would have liked to have heard. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
- Label and validate that the person’s pain and feelings are real.
- Listen to their story and avoid telling your own story, even if you’ve experienced something similar. Make it about them, not you.
- Avoid trying to fix things for the other person. Instead, encourage by demonstrating confidence in them.
- Thank the person for opening up. Sharing feelings and vulnerability is difficult.
- Do or say something empathic. Silence is a message and is often interpreted as a lack of caring or apathy.
If you’re curious about your own ability to empathize, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley offers a free assessment that provides you with an empathy score, along with feedback interpreting your score and tips for strengthening your empathy skills.
For more information, contact:
President and Founder