by Mike Pongon- October 07, 2021

This article was originally published on Forbes here

Empathy has always been a trait of great leaders. But the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view is never more important than in times of upheaval — like the times we’re living in now. 

Think about what we’ve been through in the last 20 months. Many of us have lost family members, friends and colleagues to Covid-19. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions more left their offices to work from home, just as schools closed and their kids came home, too.

In the midst of such disruption and loss, people are asking themselves what really matters. They’re reevaluating their lives and careers. As leaders, it’s up to us to understand what’s going on with our employees and act in ways that show we get it. Empathy keeps us responsive and relevant in times of rapid change, which is why it’s so critical for today’s leaders — and tomorrow’s. 

The good news is that empathy can be learned; I’m Exhibit A. And it doesn’t take a strategic plan or budget approval to get started. You can begin making, and seeing, an impact right away. Here are five of the best ways I’ve found to put empathy into practice every day.

1. Ask and listen. Then listen some more.

Leaders build empathy by really connecting with people and understanding where they’re at. This calls for close and careful listening.

I just spent the last seven weeks in a series of one-on-one meetings with leaders across our company, asking two simple questions: “How are you doing, really?” and “How can I help you?” By giving them my full attention and listening to what’s going on in their personal and professional lives, I learned a lot about how we can be more flexible to support them going forward.

I often kick off team meetings with those same questions because what I learn in those first 10 minutes enriches the rest of our meeting and beyond.

A simple but meaningful way to show someone you’re listening is to use the words they use to express their point of view and yours. This is especially powerful in group decision-making. By incorporating someone else’s words, you let them know they’ve been heard and had a voice in the outcome.

2. Recognize there are many truths in this world.

One of our associates used to say that understanding context is worth 90 IQ points. Empathy is about seeing the world through another person’s eyes — their experience, their circumstances. Leave yourself open to the reality that everyone’s truth has equal value and is their truth. Don’t try to convince them of yours; make sure you are open to seeing theirs. Even if you can’t always “fix” things, people want to know that the next request you make of them is informed by understanding where they’re coming from.

3. Use empathy as a decision-making tool.

Some companies are still making decisions in a draconian “command and control” style that’s out of touch with our times. One company’s leaders decided they were going to bring people back to the office without asking them how they felt about it. In the uproar that followed, they nearly lost a number of key people because they didn’t know or care how their workforce felt about it.

When you use empathy to inform your decisions, you seek first to understand. How do people feel about coming back to the office? At Point B, we began by reaching out to everyone with a brief survey that asked, “Do you want to get together? How do you want to get together? What would make you feel safe?”

If you learn that people want greater flexibility in where and how they work, find ways to give it. If people are worried about returning to the office because of Covid, take steps to prioritize their health and safety. Take actions that support what matters most to your people.

4. ‘Take the fire.’

It’s only human nature to want to hear that things are going great. But leaders need to take in different points of view, including difficult conversations and criticism that’s uncomfortable to hear. The moment you feel the urge to disagree or deflect is the moment to sit and “take the fire.” That’s when you discover what life is like for someone else.

5. Build a system of empathy that’s deep, wide and sustainable.

Training leaders on empathy is helpful. But if you want to make a long-term systemic impact, empathy must be a lens that every leader uses to promote, hire and fire. When people see that every leader across your company is walking the talk of empathy, you’ll attract and keep great leaders accordingly.

Finally, leaders need to have self-empathy. We’re all human. Everyone’s just trying to find their way in the world, and I guarantee you that no one has it all figured out. The more we can accept the ups and downs on our own journey, the better leaders we can be — and the better equipped we are to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders.