In his book Working with Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman (2009) Daniel Goleman defines empathy as “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns”. He also makes an important distinction between displaying empathy and psychologising. He says that empathy is about listening and understanding somebody’s feelings; not imposing what you think lies at the bottom/root of their feelings. This implies that empathy is not so much about understanding emotions, but rather about recognising, communicating and connecting with emotions.

A few years ago, an animated video of Brené Brown’s view on empathy illustrated the importance of being able to take someone else’s perspective to truly respond with empathy. Brené captures it beautifully when she makes the point that words or advice cannot make things better – only connection makes things better. She suggests that the key to empathy is to connect with something in yourself that knows the feeling that the other person is experiencing. Again, the emphasis is on connecting rather than understanding.

Considering Goleman’s and Brown’s perspectives, one would assume that shared experience would generate more empathy – if a group of people shared the same experience, would they not also experience the same emotions? This is perhaps the worst assumption that we can make about empathy. Even during the current global crisis in which we all face challenges of an uncertain future, our experiences (and therefore our emotions) are still very different.

In a recent conversation someone expressed the essence of this difference by pointing out that while we are all in the same storm, we are still each in our own boat – and our boats are vastly different. Thus, if we really want to display empathy in this time of crisis, we cannot judge or connect with others from the comfort of our own boats, we have to get into people’s boats with them. This is even more important for us as leaders. Even though we may take the same measures for survival across the entire organisation, these measures will impact each employee differently. For example, some will be more worried about the lack of childcare, others more concerned about the financial impact and others may even have elderly parents living with them to consider. Although we may not be able to relieve or remove these concerns, we can ensure that we recognise them.

To connect on this level effectively, we also need to practice having empathy for ourselves to avoid being overwhelmed by the distress we may feel for those in our care. Goleman (2009) calls this empathy distress. He says that this phenomenon occurs when somebody who is highly empathic is exposed to another person’s negative moods and doesn’t have the self-regulation skills to calm their own sympathetic distress. Self-management helps us to connect with the emotions of others while putting things in perspective to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Consider using the following questions when engaging your team around this powerful topic:

  • How are you experiencing the COVID-19 crisis – what does your boat look like?
  • What can we learn from each other’s perspectives?
  • How can we practice self-care during this time?
  • How can we stay connected as team?