Leadership Superpower: Empathy
We don't have to agree with someone's actions, words or beliefs to empathize with them. We simply need to channel enough imagination to understand why they might be feeling the way they do and to recognize that their feelings are valid even if they might not be the same as ours.
We can understand even if we disagree.
In this way, empathy breaks down walls, enhances understanding, and creates meaningful connection. It allows us to approach others with compassion. It is essential in creating the emotional safety necessary for people to take risks and show up fully and authentically. It creates trust, engenders loyalty, fosters creative innovation, and inspires perseverance.
What memories do you have of wanting to work particularly hard for someone because you felt heard, understood and valued by them? And what memories can you recall of times when you did the bare minimum because you didn't feel seen or understood by the person you were working for?
We know that feeling empathy for another is a true gift of caring for that person. And we also know that the gift gets returned many times over in how they treat us in the future. These things are obvious. But what about what empathy does in the moment for the person who is doing the empathizing?
To delve into this, I invite you to share in an experience which changed my life:
As a teacher, I once had a deep conversation with a colleague about parent communication. She talked about how parents who seem nasty are often coming across that way because they are deeply concerned about their child and want the best for them. And, well, we want the best for them, too! So even though we might be feeling attacked, we are on the same side.
It's true, of course. But when you've been working nights and weekends doing everything you can for the students in your care, and then a parent calls to tell you how stupid and awful you are, it is hard to remember and even harder to act on.
Later that year, a child cheated in my class and I gave him consequences. His mother was furious. She didn't reach out to me, but went right over my head and called both my principal and the guidance counselor. I found myself in their office, trying to explain the situation, feeling incredibly defensive and hurt. I told them that I would call his mother so we could talk things through. They said that this mother was "crazy", that she had a history of emotinally destroying teachers, and that since I was new to the school and since they were unable to have a productive conversation with her, there was no way I was going to be able to talk to her. Hence, I should just leave it to them.
I called her anyway.
I had that conversation with my colleague in my head as I dialed the phone. I was determined to go into this call remembering that we were on the same side. When the mother picked up the phone, she immediately began yelling at me. The things she said were cruel and it went on for some time, She didn't pull any punches! I let her finish without interrupting and when she was done, I allowed there to be a few moments of silence before speaking.
"It must be awful to know your son is feeling so terrible. No wonder you are so upset and angry. I am truly sorry that my choices have caused this."
There was a long silence. I don't remember her exact words, but when she finally spoke, her voice was softer, slower and kinder. It was something to the effect of "Yes, it is really hard to see him dealing with this. Thank you. I don't want him to cheat and I do think he needs consequences, I just don't think these consequences are appropriate".
After that, I was able to say with sincerity that we were on the same side and that we both wanted what was best for her child. I asked her what kinds of consequences she thought were appropriate and an incredibly collaborative and productive conversation ensued in which we worked together for the benefit of her child.
What empathy did for her was obvious. But what did it do for me?
Coming to the conversation from a place of empathy allowed me to actually listen to her and hear her. If I hadn't been able to truly put myself in the shoes of a mother desperately trying to help her child, I would have been defensive and hurt by all of the things she was saying to me. I wouldn't have been able to actually hear her or respond to her concerns because I would have been too anxious, too angry and too busy protecting myself from the onslaught.
Did I have a right to be angry?
But would that have helped me, her, or her son?
Coming from a place of empathy empowered me to feel calm within an emotionally difficult conversation. It gave me mental clarity so I could help come up with solutions to our mutual problem rather than fight about who was right; an unwinnable war.
Empathy in this situation was not a tactic or a means to an end. It made me feel better, think clearer and perform at my highest potential. Think of it as a selfish act of selflessness.
Epilogue: I told the guidance counselor that I had called the mother and that we had worked it out. I shared the plan we had come up with and let her know she didn't have to call the parent back because we were all set. She didn't believe me. She truly didn't think it was possible for anyone to have a productive conversation with this person. So she called her and was shocked to discover things truly were in a good place. Apparently, I had accomplished the impossible.
This is the power of empathy.