Towards Empathetic Conversations in Leadership

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Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt

I recently conducted a workshop on Empathetic Conversations for the senior leadership of an IT firm. The workshop used the tools of Applied theatre and was designed to help these leaders discover the power of empathy, and tap into their own reserves to enable this. 

Empathy has been defined in many ways, but one that I connected with a lot is a simple one – it said that empathy declares “I am you”. A more formal definition is that Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The most effective business leaders, or leaders in any field have had this ability to be empathetic to their people. The question is can this be a trait that you can develop or is it an ability you are born with. Well, the good news is that like all leadership skills, this can be polished too.

The observations and revelations that came up from the group of participants were interesting pointers to the many nuances of being empathetic as leaders. As we began with a round of fun introductions about each participant, everyone expressed amazement that they seemed to know so little of each other despite working together, day in and day out. This bit, of giving an insight into what you are, touched on a core aspect of empathy – of being ready to be vulnerable. It is said that to be a genuine empathizer, one must be ready to be vulnerable about one’s own self, feelings and thoughts. 

Putting self in another’s shoes: As we progressed further, and explored being empathetic through different Improv theatre exercises, there were more fascinating inputs that the group came up with – of having to let go of some of your inhibitions to really put yourself in another’s position, of feeling responsible of the person interacting with you, of a better understanding of your comfort zones, of being aware of certain assumptions you have of others.

The group reflected on these exercises and candidly admitted to not having put so much thought into these aspects while interacting with each of their team members – who likes to be led how, what is a person’s comfort zone, how much should they open up to, in turn, receive. Or most importantly, how often do they really put themselves in their team member’s shoes and feel what he/she feels.

Keeping the awareness high: Another aspect that emerged as part of the session, was the need to be good listeners. Again, as we explored the different aspects of listening, several pertinent points emerged – of how unspoken messages can be caught, what challenges do leaders face to fully focus on the conversation, of unique body languages and gestures and what they could imply. The participants remarked as to how they were able to ‘read’ their partner’s unsaid thoughts better as they focused more. 

We rounded off the session with a candid exchange of what each person felt, about all the exercises and their experiences through them – Almost all of them confessed that they had not earlier put so much thought into this vital component of leadership . That realization, they felt, was a winning moment for the group because the first step was already being taken – of being vulnerable enough to say that one wasn’t aware enough about the power of empathy.

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