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Practicing empathy

What strategies can leaders use to develop and demonstrate their empathy? This article explains these strategies in more detail.
An arrow painted on the roadway points the way for a businesswoman as she stands at a profile to the camera and looks through a spyglass in the direction that the arrow is pointing.
© Deakin University

Practical ways of developing one’s empathy.

Empathy generally refers to one’s ability to understand the feelings of another. In crisis situations, people often feel a range of negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, loneliness and even depression. Therefore, it is very important for leaders to show awareness of their followers’ feelings, acknowledge the emotional toll that crises may have taken on them, and take actions to show their concern.

So, how can a leader become more empathetic in a crisis situation? There are a few practical ways of developing one’s empathy that leaders can use.

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Ask. Sometimes it is not easy to take the perspective of another and imagine how other people feel. The solution can be simple: ask the other person how they feel. This is important because people may react differently to crisis situations: some people feel comfortable explicitly expressing their emotions, while others may tend to hide their emotions in private. A leader should not make assumptions that if someone does not appear anxious then they are fine; rather, a leader should proactively have conversations with their subordinates to ask them how they feel.

icon of an ear with audio waves coming into it

Listen. Empathic listening can build rapport and foster trust. Empathic listening is a process for leaders to discern what followers are trying to communicate. However, empathic listening is not a passive process with no responses to the speaker; rather, it is an active process which involves leaders recognising all verbal and non-verbal cues from followers, acknowledging that they have heard what the followers have said, and following up with questions if needed. It is also important to be nonjudgmental when listening to the follower’s perspective.

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Act. Empathy does not stop at asking or listening. A more important step is acting upon what is heard. For leaders who are managing the emotional toll that crises have on followers, acting includes making changes to improve the situations for followers, standing up for them, providing advice, or expressing encouragement and confidence. Actions speak louder than words: when leaders take concrete action to help followers, this action will demonstrate that the leaders have understood the followers’ perspectives and acted upon them.

Share your ideas

Other than the examples listed above, can you think of other strategies that leaders can use to develop and demonstrate their empathy? Share your thoughts or experiences with your peers.

© Deakin University
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Crisis Leadership

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