How to Lead With Empathy in Any Situation
Leading with empathy is an important and often overlooked leadership skill. In fact, some studies hail it as the most important skill you need to excel as a leader. Additionally, research shows leading with empathy improves innovation, engagement, retention and work-life balance to name a few. Even if you believe you’re not a naturally empathetic leader, you can learn how to lead with empathy in any situation. I learned it…the hard way.
Although I had a sense of what I was in for, nothing could have prepared me for the scene in the emergency room. It overflowed with grieving family members. The young man’s parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents from both sides were there.
Then, I introduced myself as the chaplain and the room went silent.
All eyes were on me. They needed wisdom. Or practical tips. Or comfort. I couldn’t say for sure. The months of inactivity leading up to this moment and lack of experience should have left me speechless. Instead, I started talking, hoping, as the words fell from my mouth that some of them would help.
A test of empathy as volunteer chaplain
To clarify, for more than 15 years, I volunteered as an on-call after-hours duty chaplain at our local hospital. It involved taking a pager for a week five or six times a year and responding to any after-hours calls for help from patients and their families.
Several shifts passed with the pager sitting silently at my bedside, until one warm summer evening in early September. I was jolted by the unfamiliar sound of the beeper.
When I realized I was being summoned, I called the number on the pager’s tiny screen. The emergency department nurse gave me the rundown: A teenager traveling to the town where he was to start college the next day was killed in a car accident.
Mindless rambling isn’t leading with empathy
“Have you made funeral arrangements? Did you talk to a social worker? Are more family members coming?” I was like a wind-up chattering teeth desk toy as I yammered away, with sad, incredulous faces staring back at me. Until one of the grandmothers interjected, stunning me to sudden silence.
“Why don’t you shut the hell up?” she asked.
Her words cut through the air of the emergency room. In fact, I felt the eyes of other patients and their families burn like lasers, evaluating this poor, inept chaplain.
“She don’t need to hear that right now,” she said for all to hear. “Why don’t you sit down and stop talking?”
Clearly, I wasn’t leading with empathy. The words stung. I questioned my volunteer choice, wondering whether I had let the family down.
My stinging public rebuke soon became a lesson learned. This is how I learned to improve, starting with my very next call.
Whether you’re a leader, a spouse, or a friend, these tips can help you be more present with people experiencing stress. The best way you can lead with empathy in stressful situations is by listening, asking what they need and offering if they aren’t sure.
To lead with empathy, listen and just be
Your presence is sometimes the most important gift you can offer. Depending on the closeness of your relationship, a hug, holding the other’s hand or just sitting with them helps them realize you genuinely care about them.
In a work situation, the stressed out person may need a quiet place to cry or vent. Just be with them and hear them out.
Ask them what they need
Leading with empathy means taking a moment to process the situation before speaking. My mistake in the emergency room was that I didn’t ask how I could help.
If a colleague or direct report is stressed out, ask what they need. “What can I do to help you process this?”
Sometimes they won’t know. In that instance, just be there. When you’ve been there with them awhile, follow your intuition. You may have thought of something to offer them.
When a stressed or grieving friend or colleague is processing their emotions and haven’t said whether they want or need anything, it may be an opportunity to suggest something. In other words, shift your perspective and imagine what need you would like met if you were in this situation.
“Could I get you a glass of water?” “Would you like me to call someone for you?” “Do you need to go home for the rest of the day?”
As a chaplain, I quickly learned the importance of leading with empathy by listening and being present, rather than immediately providing advice.
Some patients or family members knew exactly what they wanted.
Those that were unsure, I would offer, “Would it bring you comfort if we prayed the Lord’s prayer together?” or “Sometimes families get a lot of comfort from the 23rd Psalm. Would it be OK if I read it aloud with all of us here?”
The funeral home visit
After thoroughly beating myself up on the drive home from the hospital that September night, I made a decision. I worked up the courage to go to the funeral home. If I got the cold shoulder, so be it. It would be a penance for letting them down on the worst night of their lives.
As I walked into the funeral home, I spied the teen’s mom sitting alone in a chair near the entrance of the room where her precious son lay.
Her eyes met mine. “Here it comes,” I thought. Or, maybe she won’t remember me.
She gasped, then smiled, exclaiming, “You came!” All my fears dissipated. Instead of the retribution I feared, she welcomed me.
And then and there, I started to cultivate the seed of becoming a more compassionate leader.
As we hugged, I realized something. She and her family will forget what I said. They won’t forget my presence, that I came.
Compassionate leaders lead with empathy
In the years that followed, I responded to many calls to be with people in their grief. Above all, my chaplain experiences helped me to be a more compassionate leader.
In my career, I led small teams in stressful communications departments.
Sometimes, a staff member’s reaction to stress would result in tearful venting. I learned to help them process it and the space and time to recalibrate.
In summary, learning to listen and just be, to ask what I could do and to offer a suggestion helped me to lead with empathy.
If you’re a leader concerned about your team’s retention, engagement, innovation and work-life balance, learning to lead with empathy is an important skill to cultivate.
Brent Roy, PCC, CPLC, CMC, is a certified executive, career and personal development coach. I work with men and women who want to increase their confidence and boost their executive presence to prepare them for promotion or a new career. For more ways I can help, please reach out!