Empathy – How I experienced it with a dog and 3 ways to build it with humans

I just finished a book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, which is a story told through the eyes of a dog.  Coincidentally, we just added a puppy to our family.  The book was amazing, and I will never look at Harper, or any other dog, the same way again.  In her presence I am constantly wondering what she is thinking, and trying to get her to tell me.  Read the book before you call me insane.  I now have empathy for dogs.

Harper Lee Patchin

There are lots of very clinical terms and tools for helping leaders understand what the people in their organizations are thinking.  360 feedback tools, employee surveys, personality assessments, behavioral assessments, classes, consultants, CEO breakfasts . . . . the list goes on.  I once had a new leader tell me the #1 surprise for them in becoming a leader was the loneliness because nobody told them things any more AND nobody asked them how they were doing.  It is too bad no one else understood that except me, he might have stayed longer.

Empathy – probably the number one challenge in any organization that prides itself on leaders that have relational capacity with the people that work for them.

Here is a secret – it is not a test, or a consultant, or a mini-PhD so you can guess more accurately why people do things.  It is a conversation.  One that happens with the sole intent that we need to know what each other are thinking.

There is a big topic, but let me give you three ways to help your journey of empathy:

  1. Make a habit out of asking people about themselves. What do I mean by that?  Here is a template I use with almost every group I work with.  Nothing fancy, but if I had a dollar for every time a team member was surprised by the number of children someone had or where they were born.  Well, I would be richer. 🙂
  2. You first. How do you share with your team what is keeping you up at night?  How do you tell them when you are dealing with a terminally ill parent?  I had a leader once share that ‘a pity party is the last thing I want.  I just need to man-up and get through it.”  Hmmm – at what cost?  10% of your team is paranoid that another cut is coming?  A new report thinks your disconnectedness is normal and leaves for another job?  Nobody steps up to pick up the balls you dropped (weekly staff meetings maybe?) because they are still in the coffee room stage of wondering What is up with Bill?  One leader once shared that monthly they took 2-3 minutes at the staff meeting to outline the top 2-3 problems they were trying to solve.  In the end, the team started picking a few up and solving them for the leader.
  3. Pick a relationship that really matters – and go have some conversations. For a leader that has a spouse or significant other, I recommend spending the next 2 months reading a book that focuses on understanding each other.  The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman or For Men Only / For Women Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn.  Have a teenager?  What about go to a speaker on teenagers or commit to monthly breakfasts with them for the next 6 months.  I start with significant relationships because they matter the most and there is usually a strong reason to spend time on it.  Your sole job is to listen to understand – not tell to convince.

For me, it started with a dog book my wife told me I needed to read.  It is my daily reminder that I need to try a little harder, because there are always lots of reasons not to worry about it.