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Empathy, the ‘hardest’ management skill at work…

Just over a week ago I was sitting in the panel of the IMI Diploma in Leadership audit presentations, as I heard each manger and executive reporting back on their leadership audit journey I found very interesting how many of them recognised empathy as a critical area for development.

In my job as facilitator, empathy is the most critical skill I rely on to guide groups through though organisational development processes. Yet for many managers and business leaders, empathy can make people uncomfortable or be seen a sign of weakness, so much so that it is often referred to as a “soft skill.”

It is important to understand that empathy is at the core of healthy and sound interactions, it is what drives each one of us to recognise when someone is in difficulty and to provide them with help. In my experience, it is at the centre of collaborative work.

During my research on Emotional Intelligence and Management Practice I find that there is a direct correlation between the extent to which managers “care about what happens to others” and their ability to address poor performance effectively. I can safely say that while empathy is about interacting with people effectively it is also most certainly a hard skill: it is directly wired into our brain through the “Mirror neurons”, it can be practiced and developed through very specific exercises, it triggers reciprocity.

So how can you develop empathy?

Pay attention – empathy starts by recognising the minute physiological changes in the person we are interacting with. Paul Ekman spent most of his career codifying the connection between facial expressions and emotions and developed an excellent set of training tools to quickly learn the skills to recognise such connections. NLP calibration exercises teach us how to recognise small changes in skin complexion and color, eye movement and pupil dilation as markers of change of a person base state to emotional state. Observing the people you live and work with is the first most important step to develop empathy.

Explore gently – Once you detect something out of the ordinary (even the most subtle changes are important) you have an opportunity to explore what is really going on by becoming interested in the person in front of you. The most effective way to do so is probably invite them to share their thinking, to do so effectively it will be important to develop the ability of matching your facial expressions to your intentions, showing interest, openness and suspending your own judgment while inspiring psychological safety. Again Paul Ekman’s training tools and NLP calibration exercises can also help you rise such levels of self awareness. Finding the right questions to ask in the appropriate situation is also very important, Judy Barber’s book “Good Question” has been a great insight for me and helped me choose the best questions for the most difficult of situations.

Adjust approach – At this point in time you should have enough information to understand with a degree of precision what emotions the person in front of you is experiencing. You can literally walk in their shoes, and by doing so you will clearly realise what is the best way to approach them, to effectively delegate important tasks, to give effective performance enhancing feedback, to effectively reinforce desirable behaviours and effectively address inappropriate behaviour. The possibilities are endless.  NLP is again a great help in developing and practicing this skill using a technique called “Perceptual Positioning”.

Yes, empathy is a “hard skill” to learn and apply but it is at the core of every human interaction. Empathy is necessary to build healthy and effective relationships with the people we work with, lead and manage, of course it is hard to develop and is not going to get any easier it is only going to get later…

Fabio Grassi is Executive Learning Director at IMI. He is a specialist in the development of team performance, collaboration and motivation.  His approach involves the facilitation of tailored workshops aimed at the achievement of specific business outcomes. He is passionate about the development of ethical leadership through executive coaching. e-mail Fabio Grassi or call on +353 87 9183282

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