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Empathy in Leadership

By Atip Muangsuwan

Empathy in Leadership

“If leaders can learn and practice the coaching skills with their people, they’ll automatically be able to establish empathy with their people. And their people will wholeheartedly follow their lead everywhere.” – Coach Atip Muangsuwan

One of my new-generation-leader clients showed up with his interesting topic for a discussion just before our actual coaching session began. His topic of discussion was… “What empathy means? How is it important in leadership?”

Our discussion went on like the following dialogue.

Client: Nowadays the word, “Empathy” has been mentioned very often in the business and corporate world as one of the key leadership skills that executives and leaders must possess.  So, could you please enlighten me… “What empathy means? And how is it so important in leadership?”

Coach Atip: Certainly, I could. As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO put it so nicely that… “To me, what I have sort of come to realize, what is the most innate in all of us is that ability to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world the way they see it. That’s empathy. That’s at the heart of design thinking.”

And to me, empathy means… the ability to understand what and how another person thinks, feels and acts from their frame of reference. The key is, “To understand them from their frame of reference, not from our frame of reference.”  

Client: Thanks for making it very clear to me. By the way, what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? I often get confused between these 2 words from time to time.

Coach Atip: Feeling sympathy means… you feel sorry for someone’s situation, even if you’ve never been there yourself. Empathy is… when you truly understand and can feel what another person is going through. In short, sympathy is you are “feeling for” someone. While, empathy is you are “feeling with someone”. Sympathy derives from your own frame of reference.  While, empathy derives from their frame of reference. This is the key distinction between the two!

Client: Thanks! Your clarification is very clear to me. Then, my next question would be… how is empathy so important in leadership?  

Coach Atip: Empathy is so very important in leadership because of the following reasons:

  1. “Everyone wants to feel important” as written as one of the key principles in the book, “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie.

So, every human-being wants to feel important, valued, appreciated and recognized by other people.

That’s why it’s crucial that leaders have empathy with their people so that they can make their people feel important, valued, appreciated and recognized.

When employees in an organization feel important, valued, appreciated and recognized, they will contribute better and much more to the organization in terms of their individual contribution and performance.

  1. Empathy allows leaders to build and develop relationship and trust with those they lead.

When employees in an organization trust their leaders wholeheartedly, a magic will certainly happen for that organization in terms of organization’s performance. A magic like a greater increase in ROI, revenues and net profits and/or a greater reduction in costs and expenses will certainly manifest.

  1. Empathy allows leaders to help struggling employees improve and grow.

This is because empathy allows people to feel safe with their failures because they won’t simply be blamed for their failures and mistakes. Employees will be given a second chance from their leaders to learn from their mistakes and failures and use them as lessons learned for their continued growth.

  1. Empathy allows leaders to create an environment of open communication and more effective and honest feedback.

Open communication and effective and honest feedback between leaders and their people are critical for organization’s successes because these will create and strengthen trust between them. As discussed earlier, trust can create a magic for organization’s successes.

  1. Empathy allows leaders to understand and explore problems their people face and how to help them resolve them.

This is because empathy encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance without focusing to blame their people for it.

A list of importance or values of empathy in leadership is endless. And here are just some examples only.

So, what is your key takeaway from these?

Client: My key takeaway is… Empathy is so valuable in leadership. I think it’s a MUST for all leaders to learn and practice empathy in order to become effective leaders.

Since now I’ve learned about empathy, so my next question is… how can I practice empathy?

Coach Atip: The most effective way to practice empathy is to learn and practice the coaching skills.

Why am I saying that? It’s not because I’m a coach myself; that’s why I’m promoting the skills. 😊

However, there are some logics behind that. Let me explain more.

Coaching skills that I’ve been practicing in my profession comprise of 5 core skills. They are as follows:

  1. Listening skill

I practice active and deep listening. When I utilize this skill with my clients, I can actively and deeply understand their thinking, feeling and acting; why they do what they do. When I have this deep level of understanding about them, I automatically have empathy with them.

  1. Questioning or asking skill

I practice asking questions, especially powerful questions to evoke my clients’ awareness. So, they have awareness in their problems, dilemmas, situations and contexts. And most importantly, they have awareness in themselves or the so-called, “Self-awareness”.

  1. Reflecting skill

I act as if I were their crystal-clear mirror whenever I’m in a coaching session with my clients. They would understand themselves better and more deeply than before the coaching session began.

  1. Acknowledging skill

I usually listen for the positive and strength areas of my clients. Then, I bring them up to acknowledge my clients so that my clients would feel important, valued, appreciated and recognized. 

  1. Sharing skill

I purposefully share my stories and experiences that I think might resonate with my clients’ stories and experiences so that we can establish a meaningful connection between us. When a meaningful connection is established, we can build trust and relationship instantly. And when trust takes place, it would be easy to initiate empathy with my clients.

You can see that all 5 core coaching skills can help create empathy between coaches and clients. Because each of the 5 coaching skills can help make clients feel heard, valued, appreciated, recognized and important.

And it all boils down to one psychological need, “Human-being wants to feel important in the eyes of others.” Dale Carnegie also stressed that in his “How to win friends & influence people” book.

Therefore, if leaders can learn and practice the coaching skills with their people, they’ll automatically be able to establish empathy with their people. And their people will wholeheartedly follow their lead everywhere.  

And as we previously discussed about a transformational leader, empathy is also a requirement for this kind of leader.

Client: Thank you so very much for educating me on… “What empathy means? And how is it so important in leadership?” Not only that, but you also showed me the way to practice it as a leader. Leader as a coach! I really appreciate that. That’s very valuable to me.

Coach Atip: You’re very welcome. And I think you’re practicing empathy with me right now, aren’t you? Because I’m feeling heard, valued, appreciated and recognized by your acknowledgement right now. 😊

After my client and I completed our “What empathy means? And how is it so important in leadership?” discussion, we continued on with our coaching session as per schedule.  

If you’re interested in discussing or being coached on empathy, resilience, leadership, emotional intelligence, mindfulness meditation and spiritual topics or you want to learn the coaching skills as a transformational leader, we can get in touch via my homepage @ Home – The Best Coach International (thebest-coach-international.com)

Empower you to succeed and live a more fulfilled life,

Coach Atip
Advocate of ‘Coach-Facilitator-Mentor-Strategist-Diplomat’ skills and self-transcendence leadership