January 12, 2023

Six Ways to Demonstrate Authentic Empathy

In a post from earlier this week, “How to Sabotage your Brand Reputation in Four Days”, referring to the Southwest Airlines 2022 winter storm fiasco, many comments affirmed my perspective. Although CEO Bob Jordan apologized, it missed the mark on demonstrating empathy, an essential competency of every successful leader.

Empathy is not just something reserved for “perfect storm” scenarios. Empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, and requires clear demonstration.  It’s the difference between an activity and how that activity feels to those involved. Thanking employees for participating in a particular activity, whether it’s training, or in the case of Southwest Airlines, hustling to help with delayed flights, is nice, but demonstrating empathy by getting in there with them – that’s something powerful which will last in their hearts and minds much, much longer.

The good news is that all leaders, even those who are not naturally empathetic, can communicate messages of empathy just as powerfully as those of unity and accountability. Some actions clearly telegraph a sense of empathy. Here are some tips:

  1. Listen with the intention to understand, not to reply. This will exhibit an attentive presence that shows thoughtfulness and empathy. When it’s your turn to speak:
  • Begin by using the person’s name before you dig deeper to understand
  • Repeat back the last few words they used and frame your next sentence as a question
  • Frame your questions respectfully as in: “I’m curious to know…” or “I just want to make sure I’m clear on what you’re saying…” or “Can you provide me with more information so I can…”
  1. Use active body language to signal “I want to hear about the situation.”
  • Nodding shows sensitivity
  • Tilting your head to the right acknowledges that you recognize their sadness, frustration, or anxiety
  • Looking at the person and softening your facial expression shows that you are present
  1. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Use expressions such as:
  • “If I were in your situation, I would feel the same.”
  • “I’ve been there, and I can relate to your frustration.”
  • “I’ve not experienced what you’re going through but I imagine it cannot feel good.”
  1. Acknowledge the challenge and its impact on the company
  • “I know and understand the widespread anxiety as a result of the uncertainty in our industry.”
  • “I recognize how this reorg process can be stressful.”
  • “I know that this has been a very challenging quarter for all of us.”
  1. Show that you genuinely care. Telling your team or colleagues how you feel about them is not a demonstration of weakness. It demonstrates courage and compassion:
  • “You are so important to our business, but I’m worried about you experiencing burnout.”
  • “I’ve noticed you seem stressed out and I’m concerned you aren’t setting boundaries for yourself.”​
  • “Is there anything I can do to alleviate the situation or reduce the stress you are feeling?”
  1. Become the uplifter to helpAll  people see hope by choosing the right phrases:
  • “We’ve been through this before and with your commitment and expertise, we will forge ahead with success.”
  • “I’m confident, knowing your resilience and resourcefulness, that success is around the corner.”
  • “I appreciate your contributions this past year and I know that together, we’ll get through these challenging times.”

Empathy only has meaningful impact when others experience it. As Maya Angelou once said, “It’s how you make people feel that truly counts”.

How do you demonstrate empathy in your world?


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