By Steve Adubato, PhD
Very often, as leaders we talk about how WE see the world – our vision, our strategy, our plans. It’s critical to have a distinct vision and to clearly communicate it to the people we will be asking to help us get there. However, a truly well-rounded leader must also have the ability – and a burning desire – to empathize and care about those they are trying to lead and serve. This includes our audience and our stakeholders, those on our team, our peers, and our clients or customers. Simply put, we need to empathize with those who help us achieve what we need to get done every day and allow us to get credit when things go right (and yes, if you are a really good leader, take responsibility when things go wrong).
Yet, the willingness to actually DO this requires a conscious decision to step outside oneself and imagine what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes. With that said, I encourage you to watch a powerful and profound must-see video on YouTube simply entitled, “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care,” which is part of a series of videos produced by the folks at the Cleveland Clinic a few years ago.
In the video, scenes of patients, hospital staff, visitors and family members are shown with simple captions. Scenes include a woman on dialysis with the caption; “Day 29…Waiting for a new heart…” and a mother with her head down; “19-year-old son on life support.” Another shows two men on an escalator with the caption for the first man, “Tumor was benign,” and then the second man, “Tumor was malignant.” Video also follows a wife and a young daughter along with the words; “Husband is terminally ill…visiting dad for the last time.” This extraordinary video ends on a powerful note with the caption; “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?”
That IS the question. But the part that is most profound from a leadership perspective is that the ability to empathize – in fact, the awareness of the need to empathize – is something we MUST remind ourselves to do. One of the biggest dangers in leadership is to become so consumed with our own reality that we become oblivious to the reality of those we lead and interact with. When this happens, our relationships suffer and we often find ourselves thinking; “If I had only known that was happening, I wouldn’t have acted that way.”
So, consider a different approach in your efforts to build meaningful relationships with clients, prospects and colleagues. As a leader, become more “other-centered.” Start asking open-ended questions in an effort to understand the other person’s position. It can be as simple as asking your team member; “How are things going? I noticed you have been struggling with your deadlines. What can I do to help you?” Give him or her the option of opening up. Get into a conversation. Try to identify his or her needs. In the case of a client or prospect consider asking, “How have your needs changed?” “What are your biggest challenges?” or, “What keeps you up at night?”
By showing concern or interest in others, we interact and lead in a more compassionate and empathetic fashion. This takes a shift in thinking that requires us to be less focused on OUR circumstance in that moment and more focused on those around us. In reality, we may not be able to understand exactly what the other person is feeling, but showing you care and demonstrating that you have taken the time to at least imagine what it would be like goes a long way. For some, this powerful lesson in leadership is a giant step indeed.