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Building Empathy: Leading in Times of Change

How much time have you spent actually talking with your client about all of the factors that may be making the status quo more tolerable than the possible remedy?

Many years ago, I served as a supervisor to young psychologists in training as they were working to build their skills in psychotherapy. On occasion, a student would come into our meeting feeling extremely frustrated. When I asked about this, my query was met with some version of this: “this client is complaining about x, y, or z, they’ve been struggling with it for years and they say they want my help. And yet when I share with them all of the research and the specific steps they can take to overcome those struggles, they simply don’t follow through. Therefore, nothing changes!”

Once they finish venting and can collect themselves enough, I would then ask the student to spend a little bit of time thinking aloud and hypothesizing about all of the possible reasons why somebody would not readily follow his suggested path to health and well-being. Simply going through this exercise was a quick way to help my students take a step back and try to see things, not from their own point of view, no matter how well-informed that perspective was, but from the point of view of their clients. I then followed this exercise by asking my students a simple question. “How much time have you spent actually talking with your client about all of the factors that may be making the status quo more tolerable than the possible remedy?” Almost without exception, the student would concede that very little conversation had been focused here.

So, as you might imagine, this became the challenge for the student in subsequent sessions with the client. And, as you might expect, when students took the time to better see the world from the eyes of the client, and not only from the eyes of research or his expertise as a psychologist in training, the student was able to re-direct his approach in order to build a greater alliance with the client. In response, the student and client were better able to move away from status quo and move toward a better reality in a way that not only did not feel forced, but that felt very collaborative and empowering for both parties.

This story reminds me of that old saying that we are all familiar with – you can never really understand a person until you climb into their shoes and walk around in them for a while. As my students learned, this ability to spend some time walking in the shoes of their clients, or what we commonly call “empathy”, often led to better outcomes for them in their work with clients.

You can never really understand a person until you climb into their shoes and walk around in them for a while

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Building Empathy with Leaders 

Today, in my work with leaders, I find that they sometimes voice the same sense of frustration with their teams that my students used to have with their clients.  In these coaching conversations, these leaders will describe all the changes they are proposing or the new asks they are making of their teams.  These changes appear to genuinely be in the best interest of their people and the organization and so these leaders are understandably frustrated when they don’t get the buy-in they feel they deserve. And yet, like my students, when I ask them how much time they have spent trying to genuinely understand how these changes and asks are interpreted by each team member, the answer is surprisingly little. 

Leave the Status Quo Behind 

In their efforts to drive results, make a difference, and generally demonstrate to their organizations why they are in the leadership roles they are, they can sometimes forget that the status quo usually exists for a reason.  It is only when a leader takes the time to walk in his team’s shoes that he or she can truly understand what some of those reasons may be.  Without this insight, it can be difficult for leaders to properly motivate their teams to leave the status quo behind.  So for any leaders out there who may be feeling some frustration around the fact that their teams do not seem to be as eager to buy into their ideas as hoped, I challenge you to pause and take the brief amount of time needed to walk in your team’s shoes for a minute.  I assure you that with the insight you gain from this, your perspective will change which, in turn will adjust your approach to building support from them.  In the process, you will be deepening your relationships with and your followership from your teams. 

Take the time to put yourself in other’s shoes and utilize empathy to build support and allegiance from those you lead. 

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Dr. Jody Bradham is a Licensed Psychologist and Executive Consultant with 26 years of experience in the “people change and growth” business. Since joining TalentQuest in 2011, Jody has been actively working with clients across a variety of industries, and has built a robust coaching practice working primarily with senior level managers and executives.

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