Avoid Derailment: Five tips for improving your Social Intelligence

Without empathy and focus, you’ll never be able to communicate effectively and relate well to others. Managers who are focused, yet lack empathy, face interpersonal difficulties that lead to inferior performance, negative outcomes, and poor relationships with employees, co-workers and customers.

Those who need it the most are those that least understand empathy. Some hard-driving managers eschew the need to develop empathy because they assume it’s for “touchy-feely” types. Other tone-deaf leaders blindly walk around, relying solely on logic and wondering why others fail to see things their way. Many worry that too much empathy gets in the way of the focus needed to drive toward results.

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership reveals that executive “derailment” is primarily caused by deficits in the following three areas of emotional competence:

  1. Difficulty in handling change
  2. Inability to work well in teams
  3. Poor interpersonal relations

The inability to understand matters from others’ points of view means some in positions of leadership lack the flexibility required for change. These individuals simply cannot work well with, or relate to, others, which makes them workplace liabilities.

Defining Empathy

Empathy is the ability to “walk in someone else’s moccasins.” Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, defines it as the ability to read other people by sharing and identifying their emotional states.

According to Goleman, the following are hallmarks of high empathy, a foundational attribute for effective leadership:

  1. Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives; taking an active interest in their concerns
  2. Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
  3. Developing others: Sensing others’ developmental needs and bolstering their abilities
  4. Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities among diverse people and helping others understand the value in differences.
  5. Political awareness: Reading and positively leveraging the political and social currents in an organization

Successful leaders score high marks in these areas, which leads to goal completion—not to mention opportunities for promotion. When combined with focus, perseverance and concentration, empathy breeds achievement.

The Trickle-Down Theory

Empathetic managers are more likely to inspire others. They are generally well liked and command greater respect, which means their direct reports will be motivated to go the extra mile. The goal is to achieve balance in empathy and goal-orientation for optimum effectiveness.

Empathy is even more critical when managers:

  • Assign unpleasant tasks
  • Provide sensitive feedback or criticism
  • Deal with employee disputes
  • Deliver bad news (anything that might disappoint an employee)

Fundamental Interactions

So, where does one start?

  1. Deal with any negativity by empathizing with others.
  2. Next, return the focus to the goals and tasks at hand.

The first step requires true curiosity, the desire to understand another’s point of view, and a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. The best way to accomplish this step is through simple questions like:

  1. “Can you say more about that?”
  2. “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”
  3. “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”
  4. “I’m curious about that. Let’s discuss this in greater depth.”

Nonverbal Cues

Be sure to focus on emotional cues. Appreciate not only what others are saying, but also why they are saying it. Also listen for what’s not being said.

Without empathy, you will have a tendency to misread other people. You will neglect to ask clarifying questions, and you will miss nonverbal cues. If you listen only to others’ words, facts and figures, you will miss the emotional context of what’s being said.

Research tells us that we remember only 7 percent of someone’s message from their words. The rest is communicated through nonverbal cues: facial expressions, body language and tonality. Strict attention to words will mislead you, so make sure that nonverbal communication is consistent with what you’re hearing.

5 Steps to Improving Empathy

The following steps can help you improve your empathy skills. As with other emotional competencies, empathy requires practice, so consider working with an experienced coach if you continue to face obstacles.

  1. Identify emotions the other person may be experiencing. Take a risk by exploring possible emotions you sense, without assuming your suspicions are true.
  2. Practice listening without interrupting. Wait until others fully express their points of view before offering your own. Allow enough time for people to express their opinions and ideas without feeling judged.
  3. Resist the temptation to sell, advise or defend. Your goal is to create an open dialogue, during which possibilities can be freely explored.
  4. Practice active listening. Always confirm the meaning of what was said. Paraphrasing people’s words helps clear up misconceptions and deepens understanding.
  5. Always focus on desired outcomes. Be sure to balance empathy and focus to achieve optimum effectiveness.
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