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A direct report tells you in anguish that his computer crashed, taking the presentation he was preparing for the board with it. As a member of the C-suite, you’re accustomed to putting on your poker face, tamping down emotions and giving measured responses in a crisis. But what happens when you’d like to let your guard down and respond to a colleague in a human way?
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Much has been written about empathy as a key component of emotional intelligence (EI), which is a hallmark of effective leaders. Psychiatrist and author Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of EI, lists many benefits of empathy, such as being able to better understand others and to more effectively communicate. When he first became Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella asked his executives to read a book on how to collaborate empathically, signaling the importance of this leadership trait. Nadella is credited with increasing the company’s market value by $250 billion in four years, which many partially attribute to his empathetic attitude and focus on company culture as much as on technology.

The common definition of empathy, however — putting yourself in others’ shoes — can create problems. Eager to help, we misunderstand what it means to really comprehend and share others’ feelings. You might offer solutions or a sunny outlook that a coworker isn’t emotionally ready to accept. Despite good intentions, you’ll put the benefits of empathy at risk. Your colleague, rather than viewing your actions as supportive, may feel disconnected and dismiss you as an ineffective leader.

Here are five mistakes to avoid when trying to be empathetic:

Tell Others You Know How They Feel

We each experience events uniquely. We can’t truly know how someone else feels so saying, “I know how you feel” comes across as presumptuous or condescending. Your intent is to connect, but it can have the opposite effect. Instead, recap what the other person says she’s feeling or check that you’ve understood what she said before asking how you can help. For example: “It seems like you’re really upset,” “Wow, that must be so incredibly hard for you,” or “You seem frustrated; is that right?”

Hijack The Story

Don’t take over your coworker’s narrative with your own. For example, if a colleague shares his discomfort at having to directly confront someone on his team over poor performance, this is not a chance for you to share how you lost three nights’ sleep and five pounds in a similar situation. Instead, mention your similar experience in passing to show that he’s not alone, and turn your attention immediately back to him: “I can see how this is stomach churning for you; I had to address a performance issue on my team last quarter. What would be helpful for you in this conversation?”

Suggest A Positive Spin

If a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting promoted, don’t immediately try to prop up her emotional state with, “Well, at least you have a job you like.” This invalidates what she’s feeling and diminishes her experience. Instead, simply acknowledge what you’re hearing and watch for cues about where to guide the conversation next.

Overdo It

Avoid overwhelming your colleague with words or actions. Allow him to set the pace of the conversation and what he can accept from you. What you think might be helpful if you were in that situation might not be what’s helpful for himeveryone has their own needs. Find out if just being rather than doing is more helpful for him at the moment. You might say things like, “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you,” or “I want you to know I’m with you.”

Take On Others’ Experience As Your Own

Don’t descend into a pit of darkness for an extended time or push the replay button on your own experiences. Sometimes being with someone who’s struggling with something familiar to you can trigger your own strong emotions. It’s hard to be there for someone else when you’re hurting. Recognize what’s going on for you, take a break and take care of yourself before returning to support your colleague.

Putting yourself in others’ shoes doesn’t mean you run a mile in them. It means trying them on briefly, noticing how they feel, where they pinch and then giving them back. It means allowing the other person to own his or her story and experience while sitting side by side with that person to understand it. When people see you as someone who connects with others, they will believe you care about them. This in turn increases their chances of caring about you and your vision.

You might think people are paid to follow your vision, but when followership comes from a place of genuine caring, they’re more likely to want to follow your vision. Truly empathize with your team, and you’ll create better bridges and be seen as a more impactful and connected leader – not only by the people with whom you empathize, but by the majority who watch your actions when times get tough.

By Sabina Nawaz for Forbes (Source Link)