By Marc Wilson
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Our team had just finished a book review presentation on Dale Carnegie's 'Making Friends and Influencing People'. Jane looked troubled: 'Isn't this stuff about manipulating people?'
Therein lies a paradox in showing empathy: without empathy for others, you face less influence, friendship, love and success. But if those are your goal rather than the sincere care for others, then your empathy is not really empathy at all.
Many people might react to empathy as “soft.' But empathy is a mark of incredible strength. It dares us to care. It requires us to put ourselves to one side. It requires us to be vulnerable – otherwise all we are doing is showing sympathy. Empathy requires self-awareness and skill.
Sympathy is easy. Sympathy does not go as far as empathy – it keeps us distant from the situation someone else is experiencing. It places us in danger of being condescending. Empathy requires us to put our self into their situation as them – not us.
Empathy gets the best out of those around us – and opens us up to be a better version of ourselves.
I find it incredibly difficult to manage a balance. A balance of being sufficiently confident and willing to share my own experience in an unbiased and helpful way – while removing enough of myself to allow someone else to find their own path and live their own experience. To be an empathetic leader, I believe I need to care about my team being at their best at work and in life.
Skills such as active listening are important to remove ourselves from the coaching we give others. But I think empathy requires us to be authentically present and involved in a way that facilitating someone else's own solution does not.
Empathetic leadership challenges me to use my own experience and position in a way that is open to the challenges and experiences of others. And most critically demonstrates that I act out of care and acknowledgement of them.
Empathy requires that we know our self well enough that we are able to remove our projections of our own biases and feelings from the situation, appreciate the other person’s view of the world and how that impacts the situation for them.
Think about how you respond to others. How often do you respond to their experience, feelings and fears based on your own fears? Do your responses contain the word “I?” Do you fear genuinely experiencing the world as them? Do you seek to affirm your own view and experience through your response? Are you scared as being seen as similar to the other person in their own 'deficiencies' and 'imperfections'? How many of these imperfections are merely your own biases and fears?
Empathy is challenging and enriching – as we appreciate another person’s worldview, it challenges us to consider our own view, the biases and filters we have and how we might be better without them. It does not require us to adopt another person’s own biases – merely appreciate their experiences and consider our own.
If empathy is challenging, requiring us to be vulnerable – opening ourselves up to changing ourselves – why do it?
Every study on influence shows that being interested and involved in someone else's world increases our influence. Leading without influence is not leading at all. It is command and control. That might work in rare situations, but ultimately it will get the bare minimum – a robotic response. It is also likely to generate resistance.
Attempting to gain influence without sincere interest and care for another person is not empathy – it is manipulation. It is typically transparent. At its worst it is sociopathic.
There is a flip-side to empathy. To receive the benefits of empathy requires us to trust the motivations of those being empathetic. Without that trust, we second guess the actions and words being offered. True empathy might be rare, but I prefer to live trusting in its existence. If I am disappointed (perhaps a few times depending on the person), then I have learnt something important about that person.
While the empathy we give might reward us with influence, sincerity means being aware of our own desires and sacrificing these for an outcome that is in both parties' interests.
Empathy is not just about leadership – it sits at the core of being a good team member, a good follower and at the center of friendship and love. If we desire the happiness that comes from receiving empathy, we must risk empathy without expectation of a return.
Empathy allows us to help someone through the world as they see it, not as we do. It helps us understand how we see the world and how that might be biased and deficient.
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