Can you tell what this person is feeling just by looking at their eyes? (answer at bottom of page) Even with this very limited amount of information most people can. When the person is present you might also have an inkling of why they are feeling the way they do as well. This is, of course, empathy – the ability to look through the eyes of another and get a sense of what it is like in their world.
Empathy is important for all Leaders and vital for those who choose to lead consciously. Let me expand a little:
- Whether we are Leaders or followers, we are all human beings and all connected at some level. Listening carefully and deeply is one of the greatest gifts that we can bestow on another person. Letting them know that we have some understanding of their world validates their experience and opens up channels of communication that might otherwise be closed. When people feel heard, they are more likely to commit to your cause. Bill Clinton, for all his faults, had the ability to win the hearts and minds of those he encountered. People said that they felt as though they really mattered when they talked to him – and they probably did. In a world where authority does not guarantee respect, being able to listen and empathise is a crucial ability for all Leaders.
- Talking and listening to people also brings another benefit – information. If I can understand what it is really like for my staff and build up enough rapport to hear their feedback, then I might run things differently. I might also understand my customers better and take more effective action to resolve their issues. If I can empathise with my management team and get a sense of what they really think, then I might be able to harness their energy and talent without the distraction of hidden agendas. Being able to listen and empathise therefore has significant advantages.
- However, a word of caution – empathy is not something you “do” to people, it is a way of “being”. Being empathic is something you can’t fake (for long any way). If you are going through the motions of listening and are not really interested then people will suss you out, and you will neither win their commitment nor be told what is really going on. Empathy is not a tool to be wielded for personal gain – it is a way of being that reflects your commitment to and respect for those who follow you.
Being empathic and understanding what it is like for others is only one aspect of your awareness. The other side is being empathic with yourself. The same willingness that allows you to want to understand the world of another can be turned inwards. Giving yourself permission to experience and accept all your feelings is both powerful and liberating – and also the subject of another blog!
There is debate over whether people can learn to be empathic, and there is a view that some people do not have this capacity wired into their brain. My experience is that most people are probably quite good at being empathic – and with practice and intent they can awaken and develop abilities they already have.
If you would like to start – take a look at Simon Baron Cohen’s Empathy Eyes Test.
Simon Baron Cohen’s Reading the mind in the eyes test
The photo above is taken from Baron Cohen’s work and the answer by the way is – “Interested”