In a recent study, Catalyst research found that highly empathetic senior leaders have: more engaged and more innovative teams, help foster more inclusive workplaces, and decrease burnout – just to name a few positive outcomes. In the age of the Great Resignation where talent retention is especially important, senior leader empathy also predicts employees’ lower intention to leave.

So, how do you become a more empathetic leader? I shared how I worked with a client to strengthen her empathetic leadership skills but you can try practising these 3 skills yourself too:

1. Active Listening

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening”

– Larry King, CNN

Active listening starts with a conscious decision to listen and be open to “listening with all your senses”. You may also have heard of a popular model called “3 Levels of Listening”:

Level 1 Listening is about listening to yourself. The first step towards listening to others is being aware of your inner dialogue, because your inner dialogue can distract you from fully hearing the other person. To fully engage, try to suspend judgement, withhold criticisms and avoid interruptions (like “selling” your point of view straight away) until the speaker has finished.

Level 2 Listening is being focused intently on what the other person is saying. Give your full & undivided attention to the speaker, be present and aim for the speaker to feel listened to.

Level 3 Listening is where “listening with all your senses” comes into play. Take in more than just what is being said in words. How else is the speaker trying to communicate with you? Or more importantly, what is not being said.

As the listener, also try to actively convey verbal and non-verbal messages to the speaker that you’re listening. Verbal signs may include clarification, positive reinforcement (”yes” or “a-ha”), reflection and summarisation. Non-verbal signals may include maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, open body language etc.

Active listening is difficult and hard work. This is because we generally think four times faster than we speak, so our minds can wonder, get bored or distracted and stop actively listening to what’s being said to us. If you would like to improve your active listening skills, try practising the 3 levels of listening in your next 1-1 with a team member and ask for feedback on whether they felt listened to and why. 

2. Perspective Taking

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own”

– Henry Ford

Perspective-taking goes beyond empathy. While empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, perspective taking involves seeing the situation as others would see it, and recognising their points of view, beliefs and feelings. 

You don’t need to agree with someone to “live in their shoes”. Perspective-taking will help you learn to recognise & respond to different working and communication styles – the ultimate goal of empathetic leadership.

3. Compassion

“Compassion is our only mechanism for moving beyond “us vs them”

– Carl Sagan  

Empathy is your ability to feel others’ pain, but compassion is about your willingness to act on it and relieve the suffering. Demonstrating compassion to someone in distress could be something as simple as “I can see that you’re upset right now. I can understand why you’re feeling this way. Is there something I can do for you?”

Great leaders are flexible. The most effective leaders know how to adapt their leadership styles to suit the individuals or teams they work with; and when situations change and plans go out the window. 

These three skills of active listening, perspective taking and demonstrating compassion aren’t just crucial skills to become a more empathetic leader, they are vital skills that should go into your leadership toolkit.

How do you demonstrate empathetic leadership skills in the workplace? If you’d like to explore this topic with us further drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you.