Empathy Is The Most Powerful Leadership Tool

Anything we’re trying to make happen as a leader involves other people, and the fact is, most people don’t have to follow us. They don’t have to believe in our great ideas, buy our great products, or do what we want them to do. Even when we have authority—as parents of teenagers will tell you—our power doesn’t go very far without others believing that what we want them to do is in their best interests. The pull of connecting to others and their interests is far more powerful than the push of control, especially when we find the intersection between their interests and our goals. How do we know what’s truly in someone else’s interests?

"Become the other person and go from there." It’s the best piece of coaching advice I ever received, coming from Tanouye Roshi, and it applies equally to influence, negotiation, conflict, sales, teaching, and communication of all kinds. To become the other person is to listen so deeply that our own mind chatter stops; to listen with every pore on our body until we can sense how the other’s mind works. To become the other person is to feel into her emotional state, see through her eyes, think like she thinks, and see how she views us, our proposition, and the situation at hand. To write it out or read it in serial fashion makes it sound like a lengthy, time-consuming process, but in fact, deep empathy conveys its insights in a flash, and our ability to empathize deepens with practice, as we learn to quiet our own inner state.

Once we become the other, we can sense what’s in her interests, and influence becomes a matter of showing how our idea connects with those interests. That doesn’t mean she will always agree with us or do what we want, but it does mean that our thoughts and actions are now coming from a larger place: one that accords both our interests and hers. Extending this empathetic approach, person by person, group by group, through your world, you can see where your actions start to be informed by an ever larger context. Consequently, your ideas, actions, and direction will start to resonate within that larger context. You can start making big things happen, not by controlling, but by connecting; not by making war on them, but by becoming the people whose interests are served by those big things.

Become the other, and it opens up a world of understanding, in which communication becomes naturally influential, and influence becomes just another authentic dialogue. Influence is a two-way street, a give and take, a mutual learning. If I think influence is about getting another person to accept or act upon my idea, and that I will come away unchanged, I’ve mistaken it for control. The less you put "I" in influence, the more likely influence will occur. Influence has nothing to do with the strength of my argument, my data, eloquence, how loud or long I talk, how right I am, or how many big and powerful people I have behind me. Influence is not about me-in-my-skin at all. It is about the person I want to influence perceiving that my idea is in his or her interests. That’s it. And as we’ve said, the surest way to do that is to become the other person and go from there:

· Deeply understand your own needs and interests: Go beneath the surface to unearth what you really want and why.

· Become the other. See through their eyes, think with their mind; sense its patterns. Consider what is truly in their interests.

· Go from there. Show how your idea is in their interests, either directly or through an exchange you offer.

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from The Zen Leader © 2012 Ginny Whitelaw.
Published by Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ.  800-227-3371.  All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Cloud_nine]

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  • Terry LeClair

    One of the best blog posts I have ever read. Thank you for such wonderful insight. I have a long way to go in my ability to influence people but this has reiterated to me that I am on the right track and has given me the clarity to continue to enhance my craft. Thank you!

  • Katie

    I'd like to print this article (Empathy is the Most Powerful Leadership Tool), but it gives an error on my printer, and appears as nonsense when saving to a PDF.  

  • True Honesty

    Very true! As I always tell people, perhaps, if we wore the other person's shoes or placed ourselves in their position, we will better understandthem, their viewpoint or where they're coming from including the basis of their decision.

  • Pamela

    These are important concepts. I really like the steps at the end.  The key, I believe, is figuring out how to actually remember to do them, and how to do them well. The problem usually isn't that we do not know what to do. It is that we have to use some kind of force or mental magic to trick our minds into doing it, because we have developed the habit of *not* thinking about the other. So how do we do that? How do we get rid of the patterns that prevent us from being more open to what's happening inside ourselves and inside others? Just telling ourselves to do it often doesn't work. Mindfulness helps - though often in pressure situations, it is so difficult to hold onto the calm mindfulness we have developed on the cushion. So what then? There are ways of engaging that energy that comes up in pressure situations - ways of turning it to our advantage and using it to fuel awareness in such a way that we become very clear and then know and can do exactly what we want to do. Mastering techniques like that is the key to leading oneself better (i.e. developing self awareness) and leading others better.

  • sanjun

    Interesting observations. I would express it this way- Empathy is an integral part of emotional intelligence. If you don't have this in you, you might never be able to 'learn' it beacuse it comes from the harmony between your heart and mind - it's like music; not everybody can play the violin as not everybody can be a Leader though leadership skills can be learnt. However, these skills- if they are learnt and not intrinsic- risk failing when a critical decision is to be made.
    Sanjeev Juneja 

  • Ilona Jerabek

    Empathy is an important part of emotional intelligence, which has been shown in many studies to be one of the most reliable predictors of performance in pretty much all positions, regardless of field of rank.  See this press release for some details: http://www.free-press-release....

    Of course, "becoming the other" is a figure of speech, and it should not be taken literally. It doesn't mean that you lose your sense of self. What is does mean is that tune in to the other person, to the point that you are able to "feel" what they feel, anticipate their thoughts, understand their concerns and fears. Ultimately, this is essential information that comes in very handy in "emotional reasoning" - the ability to examine your emotions and those of others and use it in a rational evaluation of the situation. 

    This is a really powerful skill that indeed allows you to influence others and lead them in a way that is pretty smooth and almost imperceptible. This is not a manipulation (even though all good things can be used for evil as well); rather, it puts you in a situation where you simply understand the other person on a much deeper level, so that you can really get through to them. You can anticipate their responses, you know how a situation, event, or conflict will affect them. You know what argument works best for them.

    Even though some people pride themselves in being rational, most decisions are really made based on our emotions. Being able to empathize not only makes you more likeable, it also draws people to you, makes them open to you, and thus gives you a major competitive edge.

    I suggest that you take our emotional intelligence test to examine where you are and what you can do to improve the different aspects of EQ: http://testyourself.psychtests...

    Ilona Jerabek, PhD
    President of PsychTests AIM Inc.
    Solving your HR puzzle

  • Amanda Marguerite

    While emotional intelligence (ie empathy) is an essential ingredient in one's management skills. I'd be careful to not let it be perceived by some as passiveness or being a pushover. Our greatest strengths are often times our greatest weaknesses and I could completely see this strength being easily manipulated or misinterpreted.

  • Ginny Whitelaw

    Agreed, Denise; thanks for your comment.  This excerpt didn't talk about it, but in my experience, empathy is best engaged from a place of relaxed centeredness.  Hard to wear other's shoes if you can't properly wear your own.

  • Denise Iordache

    Interesting post! I have a question though. Don't you believe that if you tend to focus too much on becoming the other, you might loose your own identity in the process?
    Don't get me wrong, I agree with putting yourself into someone else's shoes, I just believe you shouldn't walk for too long in them. You need to still be able to wear your own shoes!

  • Michael Martel

    Nice post. The concept of walking a mile in someone's shoes is always valid.  The role of the coach comes then is taking that perspective and applying the coaches' outside experiences to it and taking it to the next level.

  • Suleman Ali

    Empathy at the level you describe involves the understanding that another person's views are as valid as one's own.  Once one has that it opens you up to the other person's perspectives in a much deeper way. 

  • Ginny Whitelaw

    Yes, Ali, I agree with you.  I know I've been really open to another's perspective when I feel my own changing.  Conversely, if I go into and out of an influence conversation unchanged, I have to ask myself, "was I really listening?"