How to become a leader / How to expand your network

Empathy is key to joyful success

How do you capture the heart of a future Queen of England? I once read the story of how Queen Elizabeth chose between Prince Phillip and a previous suitor whose name is now lost to history.

A Young Queen Elizabeth with Prince Phillip

Of Gentleman 1, she said: “Whenever I was with him, I thought he was the most interesting person in the world.”

Of Prince Phillip, she said: “Whenever I was with him, I thought I was the most interesting person in the world.”

The good listener got the girl. In life as in work, empathy reigns as the key to success.

The terrific book Clients for Life defines empathy as the ability to:

  • Understand the character, perspectives, motivations, and values of the people we work with
  • Form deep, meaningful, personal and professional relationships
  • Respond to others in appropriate and effective ways.

Empathy becomes especially valuable when you are working across cultures, because it means you can understand people’s thoughts, rather than simply listen to their words. And furthermore, you appreciate the context in which someone is operating. What are the pressures on him at the moment? Is she happy in her work? All the factors that may be affecting her mood and thinking will impact how she receives your messages.

We all carry around agendas for the conversations we have with the people in our lives. Often, though, we make the mistake of being so focused on our own message that we miss the emotional cues which can help us best position our message so that it’s understood and accepted.

Four steps to developing empathy

1.  Be genuinely interested in other people. American management guru Peter Drucker is famous for his theories and frameworks, but this is what he said about people: “I was always more interested in people than in abstractions… People are to me not only more interesting and varied but more meaningful precisely because they develop, unfold, change, and become.”

If you pay attention, I think you’ll agree that people are truly interesting. When I was young, I, like many kids, loved animals, and I went to Duke University for their #1 ranked marine-biology program. After arriving at Duke, though, I took classes in literature, religion, and history, and realized that the world’s most interesting creatures are humans. Now I love being a head-hunter because I’m fascinated by people. I meet many people. Every single person I meet teaches me something and shapes the way I look at the world.

2.  Stay humble. People’s level of humility tends to decrease in proportion to the increase in their titles and compensation. This tendency can be very dangerous. As they get higher in the corporate hierarchy, they become increasingly so self-involved until one day, they suddenly realize that the organization has grown away from them, and people are no longer following their leadership. Don’t let this happen to you. An attitude of humility is necessary to empathy.

3.  Develop self-awareness and emotional self-control. Self-awareness is a crucial pre-requisite to empathy, and I’ve blogged about it here. Emotional self-control is an important topic on which I’ll blog in the future, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll simply say that learning to stay calm is necessary to empathy.

4.  Always listen at the most involved level. Researchers often identify three types of listening:

  • Level  1: Listening deeply, actively observing, interpreting non-verbal cues, and sensing the underlying messages behind the words.
  • Level 2: Hearing all the words, but not necessarily understanding their full meaning. Not tuned into nonverbal cues such as body language and tone.
  • Level 3: Listening to only parts of the conversation, tuning out or getting distracted for the rest.

Our lives are so busy that many of us get stuck listening at Level 2 or even Level 3.  For a few days, practice staying focused at Level 1, for ALL the conversations in your life. Next, try keeping that practice up, all the time.

Developing empathy is a lifelong process, but it’s a joyous one. Human nature is such that you won’t develop a strong relationship with every person whom you meet. But by following these steps, you will vastly expand your universe of relationships, making you much more successful in your career.  And meeting, learning about, and connecting with other people on a higher level is a process that in itself is a joy.

What do you think? I invite you to write in your comments, in English or Chinese, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.

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