As a leader you’re communicating with people everyday. Your communication skills are going to be tested while dealing with challenges, delays and conflicts. In these situations, how someone is feeling is just as important as what they’re saying.
Enter empathy. It seems overzealous to recommend that leaders approach situations with empathy, but in my experience in dealing with leaders it’s an often overlooked yet vital tool. When an unhappy employee comes to you with an issue, being empathetic to them defuses negative feelings and helps the employees feel confident enough to express their view about a situation. Remember, emotions aren’t always a negative thing. You don’t want employees to build negative feelings. Instead, you want to foster an environment of positivity, trust and co-operation which stems from being empathetic.
Here are some tips on being a more empathetic leader.
Detect emotions in the conversation
When talking to your team members, look for verbal and non-verbal cues of positive or negative emotions. When you detect that a particular subject may be emotionally charged, create the right environment so your employees feel comfortable enough to share their feelings. Do this by stating your observation about their emotions and then asking an open-ended question.
- “There seems to be something bothering you about that meeting. How did you feel it went?”
- Positive emotions: “I haven’t seen you this happy about your work in a while. What is it that you enjoyed doing?”
- “You seem drained about something. What’s on your mind?”
Keep in mind that it may not always be appropriate to bring up someone’s feelings when others are around. In these cases, make time to discuss the issue privately. Encouraging your team members to share their feelings with you will help build an inclusive and open working environment.
Take a moment to listen and understand
It’s sometimes tempting to jump in with a solution or answer before your team member has finished their thought. Refrain from talking for a bit, especially during silent pauses, and allow the individual to communicate their feelings before jumping in. Don’t be afraid of silent pauses in the conversation. In fact, allow pauses to happen. A silent pause calms down the conversation and it shows your team member that you’re giving them time to think and talk. Empathizing isn’t just about listening. It’s also about understanding and sharing the feelings of another. You don’t have to always agree, but you should try to understand.
Responding to feelings
As your team members are sharing their thoughts with you, they’re not always looking for a solution. Sometimes they just want you to understand where they’re coming from. Show that you understand by responding to both the feelings and facts of their statements separately.
- “It must be difficult feeling that marketing is purposefully trying to make your life harder (feeling) by making you change the UI so many times (fact).”
- Positive emotions: “You deserve to be proud (feeling) for completing the project on-time and on-budget (fact).”
- “It sounds isolating (feeling) being the only female developer on the team (fact).”
By responding to both the feelings and facts, you are showing your team member that you understand their attitude toward a situation and how they came to feel that way.
Let’s review. When you detect an emotionally-charged team member, remember to:
- Create the right time and place
- Listen and understand
- And then respond to what they’ve shared with you
Lastly, I’d like to leave you with this video that profiles empathy in a humorous way.
 Emotions and Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence
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- New agile retrospective activity: Clarity