Emotional intelligence and empathy go hand-in-hand. The ability to accurately read the emotions of others and identify what they are feeling is a cornerstone of EQ training. In fact, there’s a whole test designed around this skill that challenges test takers to identify emotions based solely on facial expressions.
Correctly distinguishing a confused face from an embarrassed face is only the tip of the empathy iceberg, however. Where empathy gets challenging is the ability to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and share their feelings – whether confusion, embarrassment, or something else. Another tricky element of empathy is allowing that shared feeling to shape your interactions and relationship with the other person.
[ Need help dealing with "that" guy? See our related story: Emotional intelligence: How to deal with your low-EQ boss or colleague. ]
If you are unsure how your empathy skills stack up, consider how often you are perplexed by someone else’s behavior at work – that in itself can signify an empathy problem. Robert Reeves, co-founder and CTO of Datical, illustrates how this might play out.
“If you ever find yourself unable to understand why a person is acting a certain way, that is a sure-fire sign you need to work on your empathy skills. As a former release manager, I saw this all the time. Developers constantly chaffed under operations’ demands; operations viewed development as petulant. Neither saw the other sides’ issues,” Reeves explained. “Operations had to give up nights and weekends when releases went badly. Development was penalized by management when their release was delayed by operations. If both sides had more empathy, they could have easily built a bridge and gotten over these issues.”
Without proper context for why a person is acting a certain way, you could fall into another big empathy trap – making assumptions. When you make assumptions – and they are wrong – you could inadvertently act in a way that makes others think you just don’t care. Drew Bird, founder at The EQ Development Group, says there is a way to spot when someone has fallen into this trap.
“They may say things that are hurtful, even if it’s not deliberate, or act in a way that appears to disregard the impact they are having on others. They struggle to see things from anything other than their own perspective, and so make a whole range of assumptions about how others feel or how they are doing,” says Bird. “Leaders with a lower level of empathy also often don’t see the relationship between themselves and the other as important. In other words, they just don’t really care as much as they ought to.”
Asking questions and really listening to employees can go a long way in creating a more empathetic environment at work. Leaders should also look internally to address where their lack of empathy may be coming from, suggests Dr.Neeta Bhushan, emotional health educator and author of “Emotional GRIT.”
[ See our related article: Transformational leadership: Be an elephant, not an alligator. ]
“Many of us are familiar with ‘my way or the highway’ kind of leaders, says Bhushan. “They try to dominate the space with authority, and rule by threats and fear. Truth is, those leaders come from a place of fear. What they need to overcome is the fear of losing authority. Asking team members opinions and actually listening to the answers could be a great place to start.”
Focus on the end goal
This type of self-reflection is easier said than done, and for someone who is lower on the emotional intelligence scale to begin with – it can be extremely difficult.
“The classic obstacle that most people have in working on their empathy is the sense that either ‘it can’t be changed’ or else ‘it’s too hard,’” says Colin D. Ellis, author of “The Conscious Project Leader.” “These people need to decide what’s more important and make some tough choices about what they’d like to change and how best to spend their time. They need to start listening more, show interest in those around them and become more compassionate.”
It’s helpful to keep in mind the end goal, which is building a better, more pleasant work environment for your employees and peers.
“Being open or showing vulnerability is not a weakness,” emphasized Ellis. “It is a crucial part of building trust within a team.”
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.