Empathy is Leadership, Integrity and Respect
“Will you please help me?” I asked and the airline representative wouldn’t even look at me. There were seats left on the closing flight to Houston and from a place of powerlessness I explained to her that my travel companion was rebooked on another flight and I needed help getting on any flight to Houston. I’m not suggesting that she had to assist me but I was completely astounded at the lack of empathy she displayed. This experience has me thinking about the critical lack of empathy for customers in the airline industry and what must be happening in the leadership of those organizations that sets this kind of culture.
It would have made all the difference if she looked me in the eye and expressed her genuine empathy for my situation. It was the fact that she wouldn’t even make eye contact with me that was infuriating and left me feeling disrespected. To top it off, to hear, “There is nothing I can do”, as a pat response was the icing on top. I also wonder what her leader’s capacity for empathy for her role and the challenges encountered in providing exceptional customer service. I wonder if she was instructed to say no at all costs and is left feeling powerless and the easiest way to deal with her difficult situation was to not engage with me.
Empathy is communicating a simple yet critical message of “you’re not alone” and when we express empathy to others, they feel our compassion. It’s about taking a moment to be present to hearing someone else’s perspective and reflecting that understanding back to them. It’s not about agreeing with them, it’s not about changing a decision, it’s not about taking on someone else's stuff. Empathy is about vulnerability, connection, and leadership.
You might be surprised for me to suggest that empathy is about leadership and yet I believe it is one of the foundational elements. You can’t have trust or humanity without empathy.
The building blocks of empathy according to Theresa Wiseman and Kristin Neff include:
1) Staying out of judgment: We practice non-judgment…just hear it.
2) Taking the other’s perspective: What does that mean for you? What is that experience like for you?
3) Understanding the emotion you are hearing: Check in and clarify what you are hearing. Ask questions.
4) Communicating our understanding about the emotion.
5) Practicing mindfulness: This is not pushing away emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it.
What is important about increasing empathy as a leader? You might think… If we all become empathic won’t we become too soft? This is a common concern that comes forward with the leaders I work with. Empathy is about opening yourself up to being human with someone and having boundaries in the same conversation. Everyone has a story and empathy allows leaders to make informed decisions. When we get a few data points and try to fill in the gaps of the story, we almost never understand the story. Empathy is required to listen to the story to find what is really true. It allows us to make decisions from a place of truth vs. a place of fiction and conspiracy theory or assumptions.
Stepping into empathy also allows us to stand in our integrity and connect with someone at the same time. Avoiding empathy can leave you with the option to ignore an issue and hope it goes away or move into sympathy for the person. Going to sympathy can lead you to over commit, take control, or become dismissive. There is another option, which is empathy – the person in front of you may not get what they want but you don’t lose a customer. My situation was about being heard and validated, not getting what I wanted. People just want to be heard. What is at risk with just listening?
I reflect on my situation and wonder what is happening with senior leadership in the airline industry that front-line employees are losing their capacity for empathy. I wonder if they are given a directive to say "no" as a default to customers which leaves them in a powerless and helpless situation themselves. Truth be told, I could have also stepped into greater empathy with the airline representative expressing how difficult it must be to have frustrated customers coming to her appealing for help where she may not have the ability to help them. Doing so may or may not have changed my circumstances, but I could have walked away feeling better about how I showed up in my own integrity.