eLearning Skills 2030: Practical Empathy

Walk In Another Person’s Shoes And Then Reflect

As machines become accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our leadership skills so that we can lead and thrive in 2030 and beyond. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills critical to thriving in 2030. I have compiled a series of articles titled “eLearning Skills 2030” to explore all the skills to help you future-proof your career and make your job easier. This article explores practicing empathy, why it is critical, and how to sharpen it.

What Is Practicing Empathy?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” [1]. This video from IDEO, the leading design thinking organization, describes that empathy is about walking in another person’s shoes and trying to see, hear, and feel what that person sees, hears, and feels. Empathy is a skill that many leaders traditionally have ignored as being too “soft.” However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact created on all aspects of our lives shared experiences that all of us can relate to. As a result, leaders’ and organizations’ sensitivity and understanding of empathy as a critical leadership value have significantly increased. Being empathetic can help you as a leader understand your team members better and make work more pleasant and more productive for all.

Why Is Empathy Important?

According to a survey study conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), nine out of ten survey respondents believe that empathy is vital to a robust organizational culture [2]. The same survey revealed that 88% of the respondents believe that empathetic managers are better and more trustworthy supervisors. Empathy has been a cornerstone in design thinking and understanding the user experience, which is critical in developing and delivering any product or service. Tracy Bower writes in Forbes that empathy is here to stay, and it will shape the future [3].

How Can You Practice Empathy?

Empathy is about connecting more authentically with one another. In her Harvard Business Review article [4], Annie McKee observes that practicing empathy is rather difficult and requires knowing oneself and managing oneself as well as being patient and deliberate in your practice. Furthermore, Claire Cain Miller provides several tips on being more empathetic, including talking to new people, walking in someone else’s shoes for a day, checking your biases, and reading more.

Talk To New People

Reach out to people in your organization you have not met before. Set up an online or in-person short meeting, and over a coffee, ask them about their life and then listen to them. You can also practice talking with strangers in the coffee shop, grocery store, or on LinkedIn. Ask them how they are doing to break the ice, and then follow up with an open-ended probing question along the lines of what they are passionate about these days, and listen to their response. You can learn a lot about their life and what is important to them. This more profound understanding of other people’s experiences can reinforce trust with colleagues and deepen, even if for a moment, the sense of human connection with a stranger.

Walk In Another Person’s Shoes For A Day

Lead by example and ask to shadow a colleague from another team, a customer, or another stakeholder. Encourage your team members to do the same. Try to spend the whole day learning about them by shadowing, observing, and engaging with them. You can also apply this outside work, in your community or place of worship. Ask open-ended questions and listen. At the end of the day, reflect on the three things that surprised you the most, glean your three biggest learnings, and distill one thing you will do differently as a result of your shadowing. After your reflection, share your thoughts with the person you shadowed and listen to their feedback and perspective. Try to shadow one or two people each year at a minimum to deepen your practice.

Check Your Cognitive Biases

As discussed in my related article in this series, cognitive biases are a type of mental mistake that can influence how we think and act. There are over 188 cognitive biases under 20 different categories in four key areas: having too much information, not having enough meaning, needing to act fast, and remembering. These distorted ways of thinking result from our brain taking information-processing shortcuts, being influenced emotionally or morally, and being susceptible to social influence and peer pressure. Understanding your biases will help you be more empathetic towards others and make better decisions about how to have difficult conversations and manage conflict when it arises.

Read More

One of my favorite book genres is biographies and autobiographies because they allow me to enter the protagonist’s life and mind, and help me understand them better. Reading fiction can also be in enhancing your empathy for similar reasons. Research conducted by The New School revealed that the study participants that read fiction scored better on empathy and emotional intelligence tests. Reading non-fiction is also foundational in deepening your empathy because you can learn from history books, newspapers, and academic articles. Reading can help expand your understanding of others’ feelings, experiences, behaviors, and decisions.

Conclusion

Practicing empathy is a great way to engage and connect with others to honor and embrace our humanity. Like all of the eLearning skills in this series, practicing empathy requires deliberate effort and commitment to practice. As you consider the tips offered in this article, do not forget your responsibility to share them with your team so that they too can learn to practice empathy and become better leaders today, leading to 2030, and beyond.

References:

[1] Cambridge Dictionary: Empathy

[2] SHRM Empathy Report

[3] Empathy Is Here To Stay: 3 Important Reasons It Will Shape The Future

[4] If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To

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