Courage: Empathy – The Shame AntidotePosted on February 2, 2020

Vicki Noel, MLHR, SHRM-SPC, SPHR

Why are leaders hesitant to focus on this?

Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.  Empathy requires the individual sharing it to connect and be “present” without judgment.  The openness and vulnerability empathy needs for effectiveness can be uncomfortable or awkward for some leaders.  It is much easier to slip into sympathy, giving advice or judgment disguised as concern, than to “be there” where others need us.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Empathy is one of the critical elements of cultures that are built on connection and trust.  If we strive for the kind of workplace that takes risks and fails graciously, then practicing empathy skills in leadership is essential.  It is easy to withdraw from empathy by hiding behind the belief that it’s impossible to empathize with someone who is going through something we have never experienced.  Empathy is not about connecting with the experience, rather the emotions underneath the experience.  Where I struggle is resisting the urge to try and fix things for the other, because I want the hurt to go away and for the situation to be better.  But empathy is NOT jumping into the hole with someone who is struggling and taking on their problems to fix.  There would be two people in the hole then! HA!  Below are some behaviors we can practice as leaders to improve our empathy skills.

How can you do it? 

Practice “perspective-taking.” One of the mistakes we make with empathy is that we believe we can take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else.  Nope.  Those lenses are stuck as they part of who we are.  What we can practice is honoring people’s perspectives as truth, even when they are different than ours.  Perspective-taking requires us to be open to learning and willing to meet people where they are, not where we believe they should be.

Practice being nonjudgmental. This behavior is tough to do, as most of us (if we are honest) enjoy judging at some level.  According to Brene Brown, there are two ways to predict when we are going to judge: (1) we judge in areas where we are most susceptible to shame, and (2) we judge people who are doing worse than we are in those areas. We must be more aware of where we are most vulnerable to shame and focus energy on working on our confidence in those areas.  Grounded confidence allows us to let go of judgment.

Practice understanding and communicating an understanding of the other’s feelings. Understanding other’s emotions cannot happen effectively if we are not comfortable with our feelings. Practice writing down the feelings we experience in tough situations (we do this in Leadership Case Studies at SOMC).  The more we can identify our feelings, the easier it may be to recognize them in others.  Communicating understanding can be tough because we may get it wrong.  Start with the phrase “what I hear you saying is…” and be willing to stay curious with the individual until you get it right.

What are other practice steps you have taken to improve your empathy skills? Log on and join the conversation at www.somc.org/leadership.  We learn best from each other’s experiences.

Leave a Reply


  • More information
  • (740) 356-5000