by Shari Frisinger
I work with leaders – mostly males - helping their team "play nice in the same company sandbox." One area in which they have particular difficulty is empathy, understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. However, their interpretation of empathy is listening to their direct report's complaints and positing possible solutions; then, when the employee has finished their sad tale of woe, to tell them succinctly how to solve their problem. I have heard countless versions of: "But I listened and let them finish! I asked the questions we discussed, and listened to their response. Wasn't that what I was supposed to do?" This is said with the utmost sincerity and they are genuinely puzzled when I tell them that they only half succeeded in the empathy department; they got the listening portion correct. Like leadership, empathy is not just about fixing, it is about relationships.
Alternately, the women leaders with whom I have worked, and they are very few, listen empathetically. Women leaders tend to be able to see the situation from the other person's perspective, to feel how the other person is feeling, and project those emotions onto the future. For example, a direct report that is feeling sad and irritated at himself or herself because of a missed important deadline. An empathetic response would include projecting his or her sadness and irritation onto the remainder of the day – how will their actions reflect their emotions? And how will the direct report's actions affect other team members, clients, vendors and colleagues?
Women leaders seem to be more willing to show concern and take a personal interest in their direct reports. They say things like "What's really bothering you?"or "How are you feeling?" and encourage talking about feelings and emotions, which is the basis of relationships. Empathy encourages talking and verbally working out emotional issues, allowing for vulnerability and engendering trust. Empathy can purge distressing or inappropriately harmful emotions, freeing the person to regain their sense of situational objectivity.
Emotions need to be respectfully processed and incorporated into rational decision-making. It is only when the emotional aspect of situations has dissipated that the rational conversation can begin. To offer solutions or advice before that has occurred can harbor resentment and dissatisfaction, which has a direct effect on productivity, retention and morale.
Frisinger is an adjunct professor for MSU's organizational leadership program and a Doctor of Executive Leadership student. As President of CornerStone Strategies LLC in Houston Texas, she designs and conducts leadership hands-on, real-world workshops and executive one-on-one mentoring tailored to leaders that want to improve their bottom line through enhanced interpersonal skills.