Empathy? Typically, not the first term that comes to mind when we think about leadership or sales, right? Not exactly a traditional business term or strategy. Well, leading and selling today are anything but traditional. And if you want to succeed, then you need to get out of your box and take a new approach – one that includes a little empathy. Let me explain.

This past week, I was leading a workshop on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) for a group of leadership executives. EQ is the capacity to be aware of, understand and control your own emotions, as well as understand and manage your reaction to the emotions of others. In my opinion, EQ is a critical element of professional success.

We were focused on the internal workings of the organization, on building a high-performing team. However, when we started covering the fourth element of EQ, Empathy, it hit me that we just tapped the most important skill of all when it comes to business growth today. The more you master the skill of empathy, the more powerful a leader, a team-player and a sales professional you are going to be.

Let me back-up. Again, I was working with this team on Emotional Intelligence, and we were diving deep into the five areas that help you strengthen this skill – Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skill. The first two focus on you understanding yourself, your emotions and how to tap into and use those emotions appropriately. The last three (Motivation, Empathy and Social Skill) are about you reading and understanding the emotions of others; and then, managing your reactions in a way the enhance relationships.

We were having a great day, lots of amazing conversation and really eye-opening exercises. When we hit the topic of Empathy, I have to admit I was a little nervous. I was about to stand in front of a group of high-powered, well-educated C-Suite professionals and talk about feelings. Talk about uncomfortable. You see, Empathy is the ability to understand, connect to and share the feelings of others. Not exactly what they teach in business school.

Nevertheless, it was not only part of the training, I knew it was quite frankly the most important element if this team was going to take their organization next level. As we started working through the exercises I had created, an amazing shift started to happen. This team, these high-powered executives, really started tapping into and understanding the power of reading others’ emotions.  How understanding people is the key to getting your team/clients to trust you. When people trust you, then leading them, working with them, or selling to them is such an easy next step.

So why is empathy so important and how does it lead to trust? To understand empathy, you have to understand people, how we think and how we communicate.  People communicate in a way that serves their needs first. Meaning: no one is ever doing anything “to you”, they are communicating in a way that helps or serves them. When you understand that, you know that no one can hear you or understand you or your needs until their basic need is met. And, understanding other’s basic needs is empathy.

3 Strategies To Build Your Empathy Muscle

  1. Question

The first critical step in building your ability to empathize is to learn to ask great questions. If you want to understand what is important to people, and what is really on their mind, you need to ask. Keep the questions open-ended and get people talking. The more they talk and the less you talk, the more you will learn.

  1. Listen

Next, of course, is listen. Don’t just listen to their words, but to their body language, their facial expressions and what they are really saying between the lines. The better you are at listening, the more you pick-up on the clues to truly understand and read people.

  1. Act

Lastly, and most importantly, do something with the information that you’ve learned. When people see that you bothered to ask, you really listened and you took action, they feel heard. This means they feel invested in, they matter and you are more interested in them than you are in yourself. A true differentiator in today’s marketplace.

So, even though empathy isn’t taught in training or school, it is a crucial component of being a great leader. Empathy should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but rather as a show of leadership, strength and true intelligence.

I’d love to hear your stories of how empathy played a part in your leadership role!