Can leaders really learn empathy?

In Emotional Rescue Courses, as we work with leaders in organizations, we emphasize the importance of developing our own emotional resilience first. Knowing when you have veered out of your zone of emotional resilience, and then having the skill to get back into that zone, is your biggest leverage point for your ability as a leader. 

But once you have developed that skill, if you can combine that with the cognitive empathy of perspective-taking and, from a grounded place in yourself, tune into what’s happening with the person you’re working with ––  you’ve entered a whole other level of leadership. And I think that self-knowledge and embodiment are a lot of what is missing in the current discussions about empathy in our teams and our communities.

After all, being tuned in to our bodies is our natural state. It’s only recently that we have become so disembodied. In some ways, it seems like our awareness has jumped out of our bodies into our devices, into our screens, to this alarming extent.

Empathy comes naturally from embodiment

Being in touch with our embodied awareness is natural to us. Being aware of our bodies and our surroundings helps us to know ourselves and others. Evolutionarily, that deep sensory awareness is what has allowed us to survive and develop as human beings up to this point in history. So in some ways, learning empathy is not really learning something new. It’s remembering what we’ve always known –– to be grounded in our bodies, to be connected to our senses, and to utilize that as a way of understanding our world. 

Those empathic abilities are as old as humankind. It’s just that now we need a little bit more reminding when so much of our time is spent looking at our devices, and looking at these little squares on the screen that somehow represent the people on our teams and the people in our communities that we’re trying to serve.

So empathy is absolutely learnable. But I wouldn’t say that makes it “easy” for us. Because these days, we’ve gotten pretty far away from our natural skills of mindfulness and awareness. So, in that sense, it requires effort and training on our part now, so we can remember to do what, deep down, we instinctively know how to do. 

Probably the most pleasant reminder for me, in working with leaders to bring greater emotional resilience to their organizations, is seeing the magnifying effect that happens when a team or a community of people starts practicing resilience skills.

The empathy acceleration effect

Even though our larger culture is oriented towards distraction, we have found that once a few members of a team, or a critical mass of the members of a team, start practicing these approaches and these methods, there’s an acceleration effect to that. Because we are social animals. So, any positive changes we make will naturally affect others.

That’s why it’s so powerful and so important to be placing those skills within the context of our workplaces where we spend so much of our time as well as in the context of our families and in our communities.

Learn about our workplace resilience programs for leaders and teams.