Sabina Nawaz, a former Microsoft team member and now an executive coach with clients in 22 countries, says empathy is a critically important skill to have, but many leaders don’t do it well.
In particular, she points to five things that leaders should never do when they’re trying to be empathetic.
1. Don’t tell others you know how they feel
Says Nawaz: “We each experience events uniquely. We can’t truly know how someone else feels, so saying, ‘I know how you feel’ comes across as presumptuous or condescending. Your intent is to connect, but it can have the opposite effect. Instead, recap what the other person says she’s feeling or check that you’ve understood what she said before asking how you can help.”
- “It seems like you’re really upset.”
- “Wow, that must be so incredibly hard for you.”
- “You seem frustrated; is that right?”
2. Don’t hijack the story
Nawaz’ advice: “Don’t take over your coworker’s narrative with your own. For example, if a colleague shares his discomfort at having to directly confront someone on his team over poor performance, this is not a chance for you to share how you lost three nights’ sleep and five pounds in a similar situation.
“Instead, mention your similar experience in passing to show that he’s not alone, and turn your attention immediately back to him.”
- “I can see how this is stomach churning for you; I had to address a performance issue on my team last quarter. What would be helpful for you in this conversation?”
3. Don’t suggest a positive spin
Says Nawaz: “If a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting promoted, don’t immediately try to prop up her emotional state with, ‘Well, at least you have a job you like.’ This invalidates what she’s feeling and diminishes her experience. Instead, simply acknowledge what you’re hearing and watch for cues about where to guide the conversation next.
4. Don’t overdo It
Nawaz advises: “Avoid overwhelming your colleague with words or actions. Allow him to set the pace of the conversation and what he can accept from you. What you think might be helpful if you were in that situation might not be what’s helpful for him: everyone has their own needs. Find out if just being rather than doing is more helpful for him at the moment.”
- Say things like, “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you,” or
- “I want you to know I’m with you.”
5. Don’t take on others’ experience as as your own
Nawaz says: “Don’t descend into a pit of darkness for an extended time or push the replay button on your own experiences. Sometimes being with someone who’s struggling with something familiar to you can trigger your own strong emotions. It’s hard to be there for someone else when you’re hurting. Recognize what’s going on for you, take a break and take care of yourself before returning to support your colleague.”
Nawaz adds: “Putting yourself in others’ shoes doesn’t mean you run a mile in them. It means trying them on briefly, noticing how they feel, where they pinch and then giving them back. It means allowing the other person to own his or her story and experience while sitting side by side with that person to understand it. When people see you as someone who connects with others, they will believe you care about them. This in turn increases their chances of caring about you and your vision.”
Nawaz says some leaders assume others are paid to follow their vision, so they just expect it to happen. But she says that “when 'followership' comes from a place of genuine caring,” people are much more inclined to want to follow your vision.
“Truly empathize with your team, and you’ll create better bridges and be seen as a more impactful and connected leader – not only by the people with whom you empathize, but by the majority who watch your actions when times get tough,” she says.