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How to Train and Practice Empathy With Other Leaders

Working with other leaders on empathy can help the team make adjustments for productivity and well-being at work.

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Taking on other people’s emotions is one of a leader's unspoken challenges that can quickly become overwhelming and detrimental to one's overall mental health if not addressed. When a team member comes to me stressed or full of anxiety, this adds to the collective emotional weight I’m carrying. Leaders need to take the time to practice empathy in a safe setting so we can learn how to navigate some of the more contagious emotions like anger, fear, anxiety and depression.

The role of a leader is to be able to understand and inspire your team into action that positively impacts the company. To do that, we have to understand our people, and the best way to understand our people is to tap into how they feel. You can spend oodles of time getting to know all the details of their personal lives, work lives and play lives, but nothing will give you more useful information than how someone is feeling right now. 

If I’m feeling inspired and challenged, I will bring my best work to the table. But I’m feeling anxious and depressed, I will subconsciously bring my anxious and depressed work to the table while legitimately trying my best. The difference in the end work product is profound, so it's essential leaders can tap into a steady flow of inspired creativity with their team. 

Here's how.

Step 1: Pick a practice buddy

You need to find someone open to talking about their emotions and excited about learning how to recognize them in others. This could be a friend, a family member or a colleague.

Your buddy also needs to be someone who can recognize their emotions. If you partner with someone who has an elementary school emotional vocabulary, you’ll get an elementary school education. Pick someone who has done the work, understands their emotions and knows how to articulate them. To start, establish a relationship with your buddy to see each other once a week to practice empathy.

Related: 3 Reasons Empathy is Good for Business

Step 2: Select activities to practice

You’ve walked into the room and sensed someone is angry before. They didn’t have to say or do anything. You just could “feel” it. This is no different. You are going to practice sensing how each other feels simply by being in each other's presence and having a conversation. You can do this in the general context of the conversation, or you can take it a step further and set up formal lessons on a list of specific emotions. Be an actor, put on the essence of frustration and walk into that room. See if your buddy can name the emotion. Then reverse.

Feel free to explore the fringes of emotions like anger and love, but also explore the subtleties of love and joy or anger and frustration. 

Step 3: Communicate your intuition

The last step is to simply communicate your intuition. To do this, I like to say things like, “I feel frustration in your presence, is that what you are feeling?” Simply speaking the emotion helps to relieve the emotion in your own body. It’s a form of release for you emotionally and it’s a way to check your intuition.

As you work with your buddy, you’ll develop your verbal cues and gradually move out of role-playing and more into learning how to sense how you are genuinely feeling in the moment. Noticing the difference between one emotion and the next can be difficult; the difference between frustration and anger, for example, is very subtle. Both are powerful emotions. But they are very different and require different types of responses. 

Related: Why Empathy Wins and Selling Doesn't

Step 4 - Clear the emotion

Emotions are contagious, plain and simple. Go be around an angry person and before you know it you are angry too. When you start tapping into empathy, you will catch other people’s emotions. If you aren’t paying attention, you may take them home with you.

To clear your emotional field, take six deep breaths, imagine your whole body relaxing and all of the emotions you feel rolling off your body. You can use some other visualization if that works for you. The key is to allow your brain to release the hold on those emotions so you don’t take them back home or back to the office. 

Step 5 - Practice in the wild

Now, it’s time to get real. Start communicating your empathetic intuition to people you meet, run into or otherwise interact with during your day. This doesn’t have to be some weird conversation about empathy and emotions. Instead, a simple, “I sense you might be feeling (emotion), am I on base?” goes a long way in providing feedback that you can use to refine your new skill. When you’re wrong, take note of the correct emotion and how it felt in your body. When you’re right, do the same. This is how you are going to discover the subtle differences between emotional signatures. 

Being able to tap into and understand the emotional state of those around you is a powerful skill for leadership. It enables me to quickly identify red flags for mental health, productivity and performance. By recognizing these flags early, I have enough time to make micro-adjustments so we can bring everything back into balance before things get out of hand. This ability to understand what might be positively or negatively impacting your team’s work gives you a leg up, so use these steps to improve your team.

Related: 4 Reasons Why Empathy Is Good for Business