Learning to lead with empathy


What if you were to intentionally listen – with empathy – in order to develop a deeper relationship with someone you lead? What if you really believed that listening is the currency of relationship? Let me tell you about one of the leaders I work with; let’s call him Ben, and the impact he had when he chose to develop his empathy.

Ben was great with clients. A senior leader in a financial services firm, he knew that the time he invested listening to them was worth every minute. But Ben just didn’t feel the same way about his team members. In fact, the pressure on his time left him with little patience for them, especially those who couldn’t keep up with the high standards he set and personally delivered.

Ben had an inkling that his behaviour towards his team and his intentions as a leader were out of alignment. But the urgency of his situation only hit home when he looked at his EQ-i scores for empathy and interpersonal relationships, and heard how his behaviour was impacting his team. People described feeling unheard, disengaged and unfulfilled. Led by someone who didn’t understand them, their experiences or their interests, his team felt unvalued.

Confronted with this data, Ben saw the risk to his team’s performance. He decided to work on his empathetic listening – the foundational skill that would help him connect with others in a fundamentally different way.

It starts with listening…

Empathy means tuning in to feelings as well as facts. Ben started to listen to his team members – really listen – to discover who they were as people, not just employees. He listened for their emotions, to find out what motivated and excited them. He listened to their hopes and their frustrations. His team began to feel heard and understood.

Ben learned to let go of his agenda. He began to connect with his team members over a shared agenda. He listened to the challenges they faced in their roles. And he found himself able to ask what they could do to improve their work, and what support they needed from him to make it happen. 

…and becomes leadership

Ben stopped doing and telling and began to lead. And the results followed.

People felt respected, supported in pursuing new possibilities and opportunities, and trusted to take action on them. An employee who he’d struggled to manage expressed her gratitude for the best appraisal she’d ever experienced and the increased clarity and focus she felt in her role. 

And Ben found himself considered for a high-profile promotion – recognition that he was making the transition from ‘star’ individual contributor to someone who could bring out the best in others.

We can all listen, when we want to

Ben knew how to do it with his clients. But he made a major shift in his thinking by:

  • Choosing to invest time listening to team members.
  • Listening with empathy – tuning in to the feelings between the words – to understand what each person needed to give their best.

And his focused work on empathy had a huge impact – releasing his intentions as a leader and profoundly improving the experiences and contributions of his team.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed reading this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can help others lead with empathy, please pass it on. If you’d like to learn more about listening rather than simply waiting to speak, read my book Are you listening or just waiting to speak?

Connect with me on LinkedIn or simply get in touch with me. 

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