Thursday, August 25, 2011

Roadblocks to an Empathetic Leadership Style

Being an empathetic leader is not easy. It takes work, effort and, most importantly, time. Those of you who do not naturally fall into this leadership style may have to take extra steps to ensure that you are listening to your teammates and having empathy for their individual situations.

The biggest roadblock to being successful as an empathetic leader/listener is our own unique tendency to see the world through our own frame of reference – our autobiographical tendency. When we respond within our own autobiographical references, we tend to exhibit four different behaviors, each being a roadblock to a successful empathetic relationship:

Don't form a judgment before hearing the whole story. We do this all the time. As we are listening or reading something, we subconsciously evaluate it based upon our own perceptions and interpretations. With empathetic listening, we have to get this evaluation in check and ensure that we are instead actively listening and understanding what is being said. When we evaluate, especially negatively, we close off communication, causing our co-worker to withdraw. Criticizing and evaluating prior to understanding is the single greatest barrier to open, honest communication.

Don't attack them with questions. Now I know I said earlier to ask questions to better understand the situation. But asking genuine questions as a way to encourage further conversation is a bit different from probing. Probing limits questions to within our own sphere of reference. It asks questions before there is a context within which to ask them. In the course of a conversation, certainly ask questions to further understand what the speaker is trying to communicate; however, ensure that you are not overwhelming the conversation with questions and that you are stopping to absorb the answer before moving on to the next question.

Keep your advice to yourself, at least for now. We all fall victim to this. You hear someone tell you about a problem they are having and you immediately start dispatching advice on how they best should handle it. Advice shuts down conversation and shows your co-worker that you assume you understand all the facets of the situation. Ensure that you understand the problem completely before offering advice… and only offer your advice when its requested.

Consider it from all angles. Be cautious when interpreting the situation. Assume benign intent. Don’t judge the current situation and actions on past perceptions and issues. Look at the situation in context and ensure that you are not limiting your interpretation to just what you might feel or believe, but what the others around you feel and believe as well.

By opening your mind and truly trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are working with, you can better understand their position and influences. With better understanding comes a better work environment and more productive and happy employees. Take the time to listen empathetically to your team and put the knowledge you learn to good use. It will not take long before the benefits of this practice will be seen within your organization.


  1. There's an outstanding book on the subject by Mortimer Adler, How to Listen. It is required reading for anyone that works for me.


    Recently on my blog: Empty-handed and Less Traveled Roads.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation Stan! I will definitely check that out!