Why empathy and curiosity are the courageous skills that leaders must practice.

January 4, 2019

I saw an old college friend last week.  As we were giggling about misadventures and being young, I noticed a worn, taped up card in her console. It looked like it had been held, worried over and read a thousand times. Many of my favorite quotes are by Maya Angelou, but I had not seen this one. At least, I don’t remember seeing this one.  Maybe it wasn’t the time for me to see it until right now. I’ve been meditating a lot about empathy lately. As I have shared in many of my CliftonStrengths trainings and coaching sessions, Empathy is my number 34 talent, according to Gallup. I don’t think it’s far off the mark. Strategic is my number one talent and I much prefer to help people solve their problems than ask them how they feel about them. I often assume that I know…they feel crappy about them…they are problems. But that’s not the whole story and my ability to provide space where people make sense of and solve their own problems is directly tied to my ability to be empathic. I worked in the helping professions my entire career, save a few years in the ski industry. I care deeply about other people and have compassion for their suffering and want to make it better. But that’s just the thing. That’s not empathy. Empathy is sitting with someone while they are in pain. Maya Angelou reminds us that each of us has been in pain and each of us will be in pain again. We need each other. We are wired for connection and shared experiences. This is true at work as much as it’s true outside of work. We don’t leave parts of ourselves at home when we go to work. And if we do, and we’re not showing up fully, we’re not likely become the best version of a leader we can be. Empathy is the skill that helps us connect with each other, see each other and be seen by one another. My last assistant had Empathy as her number one CliftonStrengths talent. She intuitively felt other’s feelings, knew what they might need and wanted to be there for others when they were in pain. Empathy is not intuitive for me, so I need to get curious about how others are feeling. I need to ask questions and listen. This takes some courage and I like to think about Benjamin Mee from We Bought A Zoo as inspiration. I can be brave for 20 seconds, just 20 seconds to ask a question and better understand. I’m wondering how you are feeling about getting more curious or empathic?