Remember the time without Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp or even Zoom calls? Where one could share their feelings and opinions in their own social circle, but not much beyond. Today, opinions are shared with millions of people. Someone sitting in a small Greek village may read a message that you wrote sitting in a bustling Starbucks in New Delhi.
And today, a large part of these opinions are created for the sake of satisfying the audience’s craving rather than a way of recognising one’s own perspective; “I should post this to show my support for this issue”, “I should side with this cause at the next dinner party to make my stance clear”.
Why do we need to pre-plan and ensure such opinions? Why do we feel the pressure to share them with the wider world? And honestly, and most importantly, why do we need to have an opinion on anything and everything? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we shouldn’t voice our views; of course we should. I am a firm believer in sharing one’s knowledge to benefit, empower and educate others. But I’d like to highlight one aspect of opinions that has in recent years increasingly caught my eye (and ears!), and prevents such benefits of knowledge sharing. Extreme opinions!
We live in a world where there exist certain unofficial but strictly followed expectations. For example, the habit of defending only one side in conversations about politics, medical research or the economy. Is it necessary for us to side with only one perspective, almost blindly? Can we not give merit where due, and criticism where required to the same person, party or perspective? Can we not fairly point out pros and cons of a certain occurrence, rather than over celebrating it or absolutely thrashing it down? The need to stand on one side or one team has become almost a necessity or a social-acceptance criteria.
Does it come from group-effect? From a sense of pride in being associated with a public figure/cause as a whole? Or a sense of high in disagreeing with another person or proving them wrong? Now you may call not taking side as being on the fence or being diplomatic. But have you ever looked at it as being plain and simple, fair. Fairness requires a justified amount of praise or criticism, not a little more or a little less.
This gets me to a critical or important consequence of such a trend: the effect of such thinking on leadership. We are all leaders—be it in corporations, in our own businesses, in our WhatsApp groups, in our interest groups and even in our relationships. We influence, grow and impact others.
Where does this extreme thinking take us? Other than the fact that we don’t actively listen, we shoot ideas down, we are not open to change? The biggest impact of such a style of thinking is losing one’s sense of empathy. Or becoming incapable of developing it. We hardly put ourselves in another person’s shoes to think from their perspective, as we’re so busy defending our extreme or fixed thought.
What is empathy? Let’s first be clear about what it is not. It is not sympathy. We sympathise when we feel bad or pity for someone. So we’re feeling emotions from far, not from within that person. It is not apathy. Apathy is the loss of interest and emotions for anyone, and empathy involves a lot of emotions.
This capability is required not just in people leadership, but also required in task leadership. Across talent and business decisions, one has to constantly put oneself in others shoes and think.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, experiences and emotions by coming as close to experiencing them yourself. This itself gets you almost completely invested in the other person’s life, rather than not connecting with their world.
What does a lack of this empathy do to a leader? Of course enough leaders exist without empathy. But do you know of any good/memorable leader in your life who didn’t showcase empathy? One way of defining leadership is leading the “charge”, giving orders and getting work done. The other way of defining leadership is empowering and growing a team. And the latter role cannot be played without empathy.
This capability is required not just in people leadership, but also required in task leadership. Across talent and business decisions, one has to constantly put oneself in others shoes and think. For example, “This client is a feelings person, a touching story line in the deck will engage him”, “This team member thrives and tremendously grows during tough situations, I’m going to give this challenging project to him/her”, or “This colleague takes feedback very personally; I will give him developmental feedback in a balanced and personalised way”. In all of these decisions, we’re putting ourselves in others shoes.
But imagine a leader who didn’t do this. He would end up sending a dump of data heavy presentation to the client in question, put any of the team members on the challenging project without giving thought to a good job-person fit, and would also end up giving feedback to the sensitive colleague in the regular impersonal manner. And while this may sound unreal and hypothetical—this happens all the time, when we’re fixed in our ways of thinking and behaving.
So how do we ensure we empathise? This requires years of habit formation, but a few quick additions to our daily thought process can help kick start it:
- Contextualise: Avoid perceiving anyone’s thoughts or behaviour away from their context. There is no wrong or right. The context helps us decide that.
- Actively listen: Don’t hear what others are saying to technically remember it. Actively listen to it to perceive what they mean not just by their words, but also emotions and body language. This helps identify underlying feelings.
- Remind yourself that people have feelings: While working on deadlines we forget that others working with us have feelings too, they are not just slide generators. Remind yourself of a human body, mind, and heart sitting across the table/phone or the computer.
- Learn from others/ask for feedback: Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to understand how another person may do something, or how they think about something. It’s okay to disagree with them, but it’s important to be aware about their way. Develop this curiosity about others. And take on-board what they feel about you. You don’t have to act on it, but it’s important to invite it.
- Avoid assumptions, challenge prejudices: Gather as much information before forming perceptions or making any judgement. That research helps you walk in others footsteps and experience their journey rather than watching it from far, from the comfort of your view point. This is a good way to check your privilege.
- Read, read, and read: While usually practical application of a skill makes one perfect, in this case I believe that while we practice the above points, we’re still prey to our personal biases as we’re playing the role of ourselves. But when we read, we are not ourselves. We play the role of the narrator. We live their life without judgement, without personal relation, and without the pressure of maintaining that relationship in the real life. We see it for what it is. This is my personal favourite way to develop empathy.
This recent trend of extreme thinking has made me step back and question each opinion I form. I don’t form one unless required. And if I do, I form one that is fair, balanced, contextualised and only after walking in the shoes of the person/situation in question. Watch my favourite video of Dr. Brené Brown’s take on empathy, to get a taste of this.