Can Empathy Be Taught!
Can you really be coached in empathy?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a LinkedIn post with some observations about Scott Morrison’s low EQ and his inability to read interpersonal situations. He seems uncomfortable with emotion and struggles to appropriately respond to it.
It’s no wonder he has hired an empathy coach.
Empathy is the art of recognising and appropriately responding to the emotions expressed by others.
Now before you laugh, I think you need to respect that he has recognised his lack of skill and is doing something about it. This is what real leaders should do.
One thing I’ve noticed over time is that even naturally empathetic people struggle to express it when they are in a public role. Responding as an organisation or while representing a group or organisation is even more difficult because the weight of image and responsibility weighs heavy. Morrison’s empathy coach has noticed this, too, saying, “Empathy might come naturally to humans. But not so much to companies, organisations and governments."
However, the question I’m being asked lately is, can you really be coached in empathy?
Yes, you can, and I’ve worked with clients to build their empathy skills.
Three components of empathy
When you break it down, there are three key subskills of empathy.
- Recognising emotion (cognitive empathy)
- Understanding/feeling the emotion (emotional empathy)
- Choosing the appropriate behavioural response (compassionate empathy)
Recognising emotion is about observation and picking up cues from the person’s facial expression, body language, words and the way they are said. Most people can pick up at least some of the cues – enough to recognise emotion.
Understanding emotion is where the problems begin for some people. “I don’t understand why she’s upset. It wouldn’t have bothered me.” How often have you heard someone say that? The problem here is that they are focusing on themselves, not on the other person. Emotions happen, whether you find them logical or not. I help people change their thought process from questioning the emotional response to remembering how the emotion feels. We all know what it feels like when we’re sad or angry. If we can remember that feeling and feel it alongside the other person, we’ve built a bridge for connection.
Choosing the appropriate response becomes much easier when you know how the other person is feeling. For example, when you know what anger feels like, you won’t try to force physical contact with someone angry at you. You know an apology will help calm the situation.
You know, if you’re struggling, sometimes the best response is simply to ask how you can help or ask what they need.
Can we help people build their empathy skills? Yes, we can.
If you suspect you need some help in this area, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to work with you on this critical leadership skill.
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Caroline Kennedy, author of Lead Beyond 2030: The Nine Skills You Need to Intensify Your Leadership Impact, is an accomplished, award-winning CEO and global thought leader on business and leadership. She is a highly sought-after mentor and coach to top global executives. A respected keynote speaker and author, Caroline’s methods are neuroscience-based to achieve rapid development and growth.