Powerful empathy

Depositphotos_10515779_sWhat does yawning have to do with influencing people to take action? If you yawn, you trigger “mirror neurons” in most other people, which affect their brain activity and influence them to yawn too.

And mirror neurons don’t just involve actions like yawning. They affect thoughts and feelings as well. This is one of the keys that separate a traditional leader from a 21st century engager.

In this episode, Jesse explains and shares examples about the two influence tools of powerful empathy:

  • Empathetic perspective: As you prepare for a communication or engagement, see this interaction through the eyes of your audience.
  • Empathetic thinking: While in the act of communicating, actively seek to understand their thoughts and feelings and – most importantly – allow yourself to be influenced by their point of view.

With every communication you do, whether something formal or just a casual interaction, you will be more effective if you use these two tools of powerful empathy. Like a yawn, they get the mirror neurons firing, but in a way that will help you influence people to take action.

Lahey Quote - Influence

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8 Key Skills of Empathy

by Jesse Lahey on May 13, 2015

Male and female thinking together on th blackboard background

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines who think. ~Richard Restak, George Washington University neurology professor

As leaders, we need to make emotional connections with our target audience if we hope to influence their thoughts and actions. One very important way to connect positively with people is with what I call powerful empathy.

Juan was planning to present recommendations to his CEO and two other senior leaders about the company’s medical benefits program. He had invited three people (two of whom were external consultants) to help make the presentation. While having multiple advisors can be wise, I was concerned that Juan would appear weak by needing so many advisors for the presentation. Also, too many voices would make it difficult to achieve the meeting’s objectives in the allotted time.

Rather than simply pointing out the danger of inviting all three advisors, I asked him to help me understand the thinking behind his meeting plans. Why did he want to include each person? How would each one help him achieve his objectives? When he was able to completely express his thoughts, and I was able to fully understand his thoughts and feelings, it was easy to reach the mutual decision to bring only one advisor – the program’s medical director.

Understanding the thoughts and feelings of another person may sound tough if you don’t consider yourself an empathetic person.

The good news is that empathy doesn’t have to be something you’re born with. It involves skills that you can develop through intentionality and practice.

Here are eight key empathy skills you can practice to improve your ability to connect with others:

  • Curiosity: Take the time to be curious about what other people think. Try to fully understand their point of view.
  • Authentic Listening: Most people don’t truly listen. Stop planning what you are going to say, and focus on really hearing their thoughts and feelings.
  • Repeating and Paraphrasing: Try to tell them what you heard them say, in your own words, so they can correct any misinterpretation or confirm that you heard them correctly.
  • Imagination: Think about what it would be like to be in their shoes. What if you woke up one morning and found you had switched places in life with them?
  • Open-Mindedness: Allow yourself to be influenced by their thoughts and feelings. Almost no one does this, but it is key if you want to inspire people to be open to your own influence.
  • Vulnerability: Respectfully share your reactions and feelings about what the other person is saying, with the intent to confirm that you are fully understanding them.
  • Self-Awareness: Understand how your emotions or feelings may be affecting your thoughts and reactions.
  • Sensitivity to Others’ Emotions: Develop your “emotional radar” to pick up on what people are feeling by watching their body language and facial expressions, and listening not only to their words, but to any “between the lines” meaning in the event they are not being direct and transparent.

While some of these empathy skills may not come naturally to you, the more you practice the better you will become – and the more easily you will be able to connect with and influence people.

Other resources about powerful empathy:

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!


How to Use the Two Tools of Powerful Empathy to Engage People

May 6, 2015

As you probably already know, yawns are contagious. Right now, the image below is causing many of you to feel the need to yawn. This even works with animals. A study by the University of London observed that 21 of 29 dogs yawned when a stranger yawned in front of them. Why? The answer is […]

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6 Reasons Empathy Will Make You A Powerful Leader

September 24, 2012

Empathy used to sound to me like a weak word associated with touchy-feely concepts.  But in recent years, I have come to understand that it is actually an incredibly powerful concept. If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things […]

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How to Use Mirror Neurons to Influence People [video]

September 21, 2012

When communicating with people, if we trigger their mirror neurons, they will be more empathetic to our perspective. They will be much more likely to be influenced by the way we’re thinking. Resources: Podcast episode 004: Powerful Empathy 6 Reasons Empathy Will Make You A Powerful Leader Thank you to the following experts who taught me […]

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004: Powerful Empathy

September 20, 2012

Empathy is an important concept that many leaders do not fully understand the significance of.  In this episode, Jesse discusses why empathy is important in learning to lead and engage people, and he explains key skills to hone your sense of empathy: Curiosity Active Listening Repeating and Paraphrasing Imagination Open-Mindedness Vulnerability Self-Awareness Sensitivity to Others’ […]

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