There are three enemies of empathy that lie deep within all of us that can significantly impair our ability to connect with other human beings. If asked, most people could not articulate the difference between the words sympathy and empathy. While they align in some ways, there are a few degrees of separation that drastically change the intended impacts of their use.
Sympathy vs Empathy
I have always believed that sympathy is when you have actually walked in someone else’s shoes. You are able to connect with them on the basis of physically and emotionally experiencing what they have in life. Connecting on that level is instantaneous and requires less effort because it is natural. You share those experiences.
Empathy on the other hand requires effort, and an extraordinary amount of it. Someone who has not experienced similar trials and tribulations has to work harder to understand someone else’s. Empathy is getting as close to walking in that person’s shoes as possible, without ever stepping into them. It is a valuable tool in a leader’s toolbox, but many times gets left in it.
This week, we look at the three enemies of empathy that limit our ability to lead others:
I get the opportunity to lead a men’s group for our church every Wednesday morning. We had a good discussion around this particular topic last week. In our group there are men who have walked through circumstances I cannot even fathom, everything from the loss of a child, to addiction, to divorce, you name it. Knowing their experiences makes me a more empathetic person, I see there is more to this world than just how I have experienced life. It also makes me more cautious in my communication with others. Now, before I decide to render my opinion to them, I need to remind myself that I never know what they have walked through or are currently walking through.
Too often, we fail to connect with others and eliminate the possibility of positively influencing them because of our mouths. In a world of soundbites and strongly expressed opinions, we can forget there are stories behind the recipients of our messages. Stories we cannot even begin to imagine. Lacking empathy and popping off at the mouth shows a level of ignorance that sends a message that we are incapable of understanding others.
As leaders, we sit in boardrooms, classrooms, and conference rooms with others. Those we have an opportunity to serve daily. When we decide to rattle off our righteous opinions, our political beliefs, or a strong opinion on how someone else can better live their life, the amount of people we are able to influence in this lifetime is greatly reduced. If people cannot get past the words that come out of our mouth, they will never know our hearts. If they never know our hearts, we won’t be able to get them to follow us.
Our ears can be an enemy to empathy. Leaders who don’t listen have an inability to connect at a personal level with their people. Andy Stanley has a great quote on this, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing significant to say.” The significant things they need to tell you include everything they go home to on a regular basis that may be impacting their work performance such as aging parents, sick children, financial struggles, personal health issues, debilitating anxiety, to just name a few. When we fail to genuinely listen, we risk missing these things that aren’t said. Simon Sinek says, “Hearing is listening to what is said. Listening is hearing what isn’t said.”
In order to lead well you must be empathetic, in order to be empathetic, you must be a good listener. The ability to genuinely listen to another person is a skillset that few are naturally good at and the rest of us have to work very hard at it. Have you ever sat across from someone who is a great, empathetic listener? I saw a quote on the internet that I couldn’t trace back to anyone, but it says, “some people won’t understand your words, while some won’t even need words to understand you.” Leaders who possess the ability to understand people, also possess the willingness to listen.
Put your phone away, stop checking emails, look the person in the eyes, display good body language, quit developing the rebuttal, and just be present and listen. Great leaders use their ears, but more importantly their hearts to listen.
If you walk around long enough without shoes on, the bottom of your feet will get callused. Webster’s Dictionary defines calloused as, “being hardened or thickened; feeling no emotion.” If we are not careful, our life and leadership experiences can callous our hearts. It can harden them, leading to not being able to feel emotion. We put walls up, become cynical, believe the worst in others, expect things to go bad, and become critical of others. All these conditions lead to being a person who is not empathetic.
While our experiences can be an enemy of empathy, they can also be our connecting point to others. Too often, leaders feel they must have it all together. Let me let you in on a deep dark secret in my life…I don’t have it all together, and guess what…neither do you! Leaders must be vulnerable. When we share the hardships of life and leadership, it connects with others. I have had heard my pastor, Mike Linch, share this quote from Ron Dunn several times that says, “What is most personal is most universal. This is so true, yet we continue to believe the lie that no one else has ever experienced what we have.
All of us have the ability to be empathetic, it’s just a matter of whether we have the willingness. Empathy is an intentional act that separates extraordinary leaders from the ordinary ones.
Here is what empathy does, it sends a message, spoken or unspoken that you love and care for the people you lead. Unempathetic leaders create distance from those they lead, while empathetic leaders close the distance.
Life and leadership is tough. It seems to get crazier by the day. The people we lead need our empathy now, more than ever. In the midst of labor shortages, supply chain issues, and pandemics, our people need Human Leadership now, more than ever. Empathy connects leaders with their people. Defeat the enemies of empathy.