Whether you chose to work remotely or you’ve been thrust into the world of “telecommuters” by world events or changes in your business or industry, trying to manage a remote team brings challenges to even the most experienced leaders.
In times of crisis, it’s very important that you realize your employees may feel like their world has been changed so profoundly that they don’t know which way is up . . . and maybe you feel a little bit like this too?
It’s not “business as usual” right now and it’s important that leaders realize and acknowledge this and use it as a filter for their communication not only when they’re sending messages, but when they’re receiving them as well.
One of the old adages about empathy is that it’s “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” However, most people don’t take the time to identify what that really means and what it doesn’t mean.
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean looking at someone’s situation and feeling bad for them that they find themselves in that situation. That’s sympathy. You can’t show empathy for others by staying in your own shoes and evaluating things from your perspective. This is judgment – whether it’s positive judgment or negative judgment.
It also doesn’t mean you have to have been in the other person’s situation or a similar one to feel empathy. In fact, it’s sometimes better if you haven’t because if you have, then you’ll have a tendency to pull your own experiences into the situation, either in your evaluation (judgment) or in your conversation. In most instances, when people are sharing a challenging situation they’re in, they don’t want to hear, “I know how you feel. When I was in that situation . . .” and then be required to listen while you tell your story. They want to tell THEIR story!
The ability to be truly empathetic requires you to get out of your own shoes, put them aside, and step into the shoes of the other person.
Empathy isn’t easy. It’s hard to put aside your own experiences. It can also be a challenge to relate to someone else’s situation when you’ve never experienced it. If you’re a leader who is single, male, and in your 50’s, you might not be able to understand why your employee, who is a mom in her 30’s with three kids can’t get work done while working from home when her kids are off from school. And that’s okay!
The only thing you need to be able to do is put aside your beliefs, feelings, and experiences and really LISTEN to your employee. What’s the employee feeling? What are the challenges he or she is facing. What do they need from you in the way of support?
Here are some tips for being more empathetic and expressing your empathy to others:
Put aside your own opinions, values, judgments and experiences. Once you do, you’ll be better able to step into the shoes of the other person and experience their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Listen to words and feelings. We all know that people don’t always tell us how they feel, they SHOW us. Therefore, you need to listen between the lines – past the words people say and focus on their vocal qualities, facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbals to see what messages are being sent. When the nonverbal contradicts the verbal, or doesn’t reinforce it, an empathetic person asks for clarification.
Listen more than you talk. You can’t learn how someone else feels or understand their experience if you’re sharing yours. Resist the urge to share your stories and instead talk when you need to ask questions, paraphrase what you heard, or prompt for more information so you can understand.
Avoid assumptions. Nothing kills empathy more than assumptions (and judgment-which I’ll address next). When you make assumptions, you’re creating your own scenario, not understanding and experiencing the other person’s. If you feel yourself “filling in the blanks” with assumptions, ASK a question instead to get the information you need.
Avoid judgment. It can be difficult, especially if the other person is experiencing a bad situation that you’ve never experienced or don’t believe you would ever find yourself in, to cast judgment on the person or the situation. When you feel yourself doing so, it’s okay to acknowledge it, “I would never have done that,” but you must immediately put that thought aside and say, “how does Mary feel having done that?”
For more information about improving your Empathy skills, check out my blog post – “Empathy: Why It’s Important and How You Can Give It”
P.S. In cased you missed it, here’s a link to a bunch of free and low-cost resources for leading your team and serving your customers in these complicated times!