Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s experience. Respect is the ability to value another person’s experience. Excellent leaders know how to communicate with empathy.
But first, what is leadership? If you Google “definition of leadership” you will receive about 20 million proposed answers. In my opinion, leadership is best defined as “the things we do and say that inspire others to take on their most difficult challenges and succeed.” And what is the most important thing we can do to inspire others? It’s learning how to communicate with empathy.
So, what is empathy? And what does it mean to have empathy skills? The best answers come from Dr. Helen Reiss who teaches empathy at the Harvard Medical School and is the Vice President of Empathy at Massachusetts General Hospital. She defines empathy using each of the seven letters. I’ve modified some of the definitions in an effort to laser focus on leading and inspiring others.
The “E” stands for Eye contact. Dr. Reiss teaches us that all human beings have the innate desire “to be seen” so it’s very important to make good eye contact with people, especially when they are speaking. Film producer and author Brian Grazer, in his book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, states: “We use many tools during face to face contact that help us communicate more clearly and navigate relationships. For me, however, eye contact is far and away the most critical. It’s like the wifi of human connection. Just as wifi connects us to endless information on the internet, making eye contact opens up endless possibilities.”
The “M” stands for the Muscles in our face. A person can learn a lot about us by watching our facial expressions. During every face to face communication we need be upbeat, interested, and likable. And what’s the best way to be upbeat and likable—it begins with our smile. We should never underestimate the power of a smile. My mentor taught me that if you don’t like your smile you should save the money to have a dentist help you find your very best smile.
The “P” stands for Posture. There are dozens of books and videos on the power of body language. Body language is a type of nonverbal communication in which our physical behaviors, as opposed to our words, are used to convey information. This behavior includes body posture, hand gestures, eye movement, and the use of space. Dr. Helen Reiss found that physicians delivering news to a patient is much better received when the physician is sitting rather than standing. Yes, posture makes a difference.
The “A” stands for how our life stories Affect others. Stories are a universal language of sorts. We all appreciate a good story—one where we can share feelings of joy or hope or conquering a challenge. Sharing a good story can give even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community. We all need to master the art of telling a good story—and making sure we tell the story at the right time and for the right reason.
The “T” stands for Tone of voice. It’s our tone of voice that tells others how we feel about our message, and it will influence how they will feel about our message. We all need to find our best voice. We need to speak at the right pitch and the right speed for the situation. And when it comes to public speaking, the messenger is just as important as the message. Our tone of voice, no matter how nervous we are, should project confidence and likability.
The “H” stands for Hearing the other person. Listening is one of the most important skills we can have in life—both at work and at home. We probably spend more time using our listening skills than any other kind of skill. And like other skills, listening takes practice. We need to both “hear”and understand the other person. The most common negative listening habits are known as faking, interrupting, and logical listening. Faking is where we nod, make eye contact, give “uh huh’s” but aren’t really listening. Interrupting is where we don’t allow the speaker to finish and we don’t ask clarifying questions—we are too anxious to have our say. Logical listening is where we judge the speaker’s words and fit them into our logic box—we rarely ask about the underlying feelings attached to the communication.
The “Y” stands for Your questions! If we want to truly connect with others we need to ask great questions and then genuinely listen to what they have to say. Excellent leaders ask the right questions, at the right time, and for the right reasons. For example, good general questions might include:
- What can I do to be a better leader?
- What organization process needs to be fixed or improved?
- If you were running the department, what would you do differently?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your own career progress?
- When do you have the most fun at work?
- How can the organization design your role to create what’s next in your career?
- Is there anything you need from me?
So, remember, if you truly want to be an excellent leader who is highly respected throughout the organization, then you need to master the art and science of communicating with empathy. Good luck!