To babies, Peek-a-Boo is much more than a game. Part of the fascination is excitement about the new (for them) concept of object permanence — the idea that objects continue to exist even when they're out of view. In Peek-a-Boo, the "object" is often Mommy or Daddy, and it certainly must be a relief to realize that "out of sight" doesn't mean "gone for good."
Belief in object permanence rests on the ability to form mental models of objects, and on the belief that the models have predictive value. Eventually, most of us also learn to make mental models of the inner experiences of other people. And that's called empathy.
Since empathy skills help to determine leadership effectiveness, improving empathy skills can make us better leaders. Here are some tips for improving your empathy skills.
- Begin with yourself
- Probably the best foundation for empathic skill is comfort with and understanding of our own inner state, especially our emotional state. Ask yourself, "How do I feel about that?"
- Reflect on events, on what else could have happened, and how you could have helped make that happen. Focus on the personal iceberg of others — that mostly-hidden hierarchy of copings, feelings, perceptions, expectations, yearnings, and ultimately the Self.
- Keep a working journal
- Since empathy skills
help to determine
improving empathy skills
can make us better leaders
- Journaling guides reflection. The writing slows your thinking, and you can review past thinking because it's recorded. Focus on incidents in which someone (possibly yourself) used (or failed to use) empathy skills. If there are people you interact with regularly, journal your interactions with them, and make conjectures about your inner state and theirs. Notice patterns. See "Working Journals," Point Lookout for July 26, 2006, for more.
- Ask open questions
- To learn about the inner state of others, ask questions that get people to open themselves to you. "What's that like?" "Tell me more about that." "What would you have liked instead?"
- Notice experts
- Notice empathy skills in others, especially those who seem to do well. Notice also how people react to them.
- Notice interruptions
- When we talk less, we learn more. Notice how other people interrupt each other. Noticing this will help reduce your own interrupting behavior, effortlessly. For more on interruptions, see "Let Me Finish, Please," Point Lookout for January 22, 2003, and "Discussus Interruptus," Point Lookout for January 29, 2003.
- Play improv games
- Some improv games actually sharpen your empathic skills. Interview someone else asking only open-ended questions. To learn to slow down, try conducting a conversation using words of one syllable only.
- Facilitating debates in which you have no stake and little expertise sharpens your observational skills, especially with respect to conversation dynamics. And you might learn to be more of a facilitator even when you do have a stake in the topic.
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For more about empathy and the uses of empathy, see "The Uses of Empathy," Point Lookout for January 4, 2006.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Getting Home in Time for Dinner
- Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do
all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then
we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
- When You Need a Lift
- When we depend on praise, positive support or consumption to feel good, we're giving other people or
things power over us. Finding within ourselves whatever we need to feel good about ourselves is one
path to autonomy and freedom.
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions
privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk.
- Contribution Misattribution
- In teams, acknowledging people for their contributions is essential for encouraging high performance.
Failing to do so can be expensive. Three patterns of contribution misattribution are especially costly:
theft, rejection/transmigration, and eliding.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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