The definition of empathy is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. For some, this skill comes naturally while others must work to develop it.
Within business, empathy starts one person at a time, flowing outward until this loving practice carries ripples of energy to others, growing and expanding throughout the organization.
Empathy is a key practice for the servant leader – and also a responsibility. It entails truly feeling the emotions of the other person and doing so without judgment and criticism. Empathy begins with listening – truly being present in the moment with someone and listening with your whole self. And, that is an art. Listening not only with your ears but also with your heart. Slowing down to feel what they are saying and intuit the meaning between the words. If you are forming your response while listening, then you are not truly present with them.
Empathetic energy exchanged between two people is powerful. According to Institute of HeartMath Director of Research Rollin McCraty, the heart has an electromagnetic field 60x stronger than the brain. Scientific data shows that it is possible for the electromagnetic signals sent from the heart of one person to influence the brain and heart rhythms of another during conversation. If the person communicating is distraught, angry or sad, these emotions can change the heart rate of the listener to non-coherence. However, if the listener displays empathy and understanding, it can calm the heart rate of them both. What a powerful force for good! The ripple effects of practicing empathy extend beyond the individual into the organization.
In the business book, Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, authors James Sipe and Don Frick state that the servant leader “puts people first.” A core competency of this is displaying a servant’s heart. Empathy is just that! It is true communion that brings two people onto common ground. When someone is sharing their thoughts or emotions they are clearly aware if they are receiving empathy. They can feel it. They know if it’s safe to open up more. To get to the core of an organization in order to better guide the business, a leader must practice listening with empathy.
According to studies done by the Center for Creative Leadership, benefits of empathy in the workplace are many. It improves emotional well being, deepens relationships and may provide insight into poor job performance or issues with co-workers. It can lead to further awakening during an interaction. It gives the leader a deeper understanding and insight into the organization as a whole. It is true servant leadership.