Chinmaya Madan Explains How to Become a More Empathetic Leader

Chinmaya Madan

September 29, 2021

Chinmaya Madan Explains How to Become a More Empathetic Leader

Empathy is a right-brain activity that many consider a touchy-feely discipline or a soft skill. However, at its core, empathy is a highly valued currency. Chinmaya Madan notes that in many situations, leaders must put someone else’s shoes on to truly understand what is occurring around them.

Cultivating empathy as a skill allows us to create strong bonds of trust amongst our coworkers and employees. It gives us insight into what others are thinking and feeling while helping us to better understand their reactions to different situations.

At its core, empathy helps us make decisions by sharpening our intuition and perception.

To become a more empathetic leader, you must first truly listen with open ears, eyes, and heart. This means paying attention to the tone of voice, body language, and other hidden emotions. Most importantly, it means not thinking about what you are going to say next, which can be a difficult shift for many. You will always profit more from listening than speaking.

Empathy: the key to having crucial conversations

As Chinmaya Madan knows, communication is one of the most underrated skills in the workplace, particularly in such technical fields as software development, cybersecurity, and IT.

Not only is effective workplace communication key to reducing errors and keeping staff on the same page, it’s also essential to resolving conflict, improving collaboration, and ensuring the high levels of morale needed to maximize employee retention over the long run.

And at the center of any effective communications approach is, of course, empathy, a powerful connection booster needed to build stronger connections and, ultimately, carry out those crucial conversations that keep the organization moving forward.

Tips for having difficult conversations at work

One of Chinmaya Madan’s favorites on the subject, 2013’s “Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high,” lays out some simple but profoundly effective tips for navigating difficult conversations and maximizing conversational success:

  1. Speak from the heart. Connections are best made by empathizing with the other speaker’s position and keeping things positive.
  2. Stay within the dialogue. Avoid tangents and strive to remain within the primary focus of the conversation.
  3. Make the conversation safe. Allow the other person the freedom to speak openly and honestly about the topic at hand.
  4. Avoid emotional traps. Acknowledge the other speaker’s feelings on the issue, but don’t let the conversation subvert the purpose.
  5. Agree on the focus. Agree on a clearly defined purpose at the beginning to keep things focused.
  6. Establish the facts. Don’t allow something anecdotal to override the facts of the matter.
  7. Agree on a clear plan of action.

Achieving empathy in a remote work world

For better or worse, so much of how we communicate with teams and colleagues these days is done on a remote basis.

And because so much of communication is, in fact, non-verbal, knowing how to stay connected and communicate on issues, product updates and objectives can be a significant challenge, particularly with the prevalence and limitations of video conferencing and workplace chat zones.

Fortunately, there are small but effective methods for maintaining empathy and strengthening communication in today’s remote work environment. Chinmaya Madan recommends:

  1. Scheduling check-ins consistently. Scheduling regular team and one-on-one huddles at the same time and day each week provides employees the opportunity to voice questions and concerns, as well as to feel appreciated by leadership.
  2. Showing interest/sharing a personal anecdote. Starting off communications by asking how everyone is, how their day/week is going, what’s new in their lives helps establish an invaluable personal connection that can make collaboration much easier down the road.
  3. Getting people to think with open-ended questions. Instead of asking up-and-down yes-or-no questions throughout the meeting, ask open-ended questions that allow everyone to contribute their thoughts equally.

Another required quality for becoming more empathetic is to never interrupt. The most empathetic leaders know that distractions can easily impact the quality of listening. Distracted listeners become frustrated or impatient and interrupt the speaker to get them to reach their point faster, which leaves the speaker unable to fully express their thoughts.

Regardless of the distraction, never cut people off, rush them, or be a fixer who slapdashes a solution to every problem. Chinmaya Madan notes that giving your employees the space to say whatever they want is a critical empathy skill.

Even if you do not agree with what the speaker is saying, leave your judgment behind. Get away from your beliefs and allow yourself to be open to new ideas and perspectives.

Chinmaya Madan finds that when you are an empathetic leader, you don’t view feelings as an agreement or disagreement but as a window into their view and perception of a situation, and as an opportunity to understand what they are expressing and experiencing.

Another interesting way to become more empathetic is by encouraging quiet employees. Typically, during meetings, there are a few that do all the talking and then there are the quiet participants sitting in the back who don’t speak up much, even if their ideas are golden.

As a leader, make it a point to encourage all employees to speak their minds, thus empowering everyone in the room.

Motivating others to speak up (especially during meetings)

As Chinmaya Madan knows, encouraging everyone to speak up and provide their input isn’t always easy. But taking a few simple actions beforehand can go a long way to nudging quiet employees in the right direction and enhancing the overall conversation:

Eliminate seating preferences. Equalizing the seating arrangements during in-person meetings helps remove common focal points that often allow extroverts to dominate company discussions, giving typically introverted employees more space to make their voices heard.

Greet each attendee beforehand. Greeting each individual in a friendly manner before the meeting starts helps establish a friendly rapport and comfort level that can often increase participation rates throughout.

Set ground rules. Establishing clear ground rules based on mutual respect, equal time and the elimination of interruptions provides everyone space to contribute to the conversation at hand.

Empathy is a thinking and emotional muscle that becomes stronger as you garner the support skills. Chinmaya Madan notes it does not come across as weak but is the best kind of strength you can possess. These skills are not something that can be learned overnight but need years of practice to master.

Once you do, you will be a more effective and efficient leader who can greatly contribute to any organization.