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  • Carol Vallone Mitchell

The Empathy Muscle

Our world has had a jolt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the global stage, women are standing out as effectively leading their people through this pandemic. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan President Tsai-wen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir have been praised by Forbes and other media publications for their leadership during a global pandemic.

This is not surprising. Characteristics of successful women leaders such as empathy and inclusiveness build connection and trust. But it’s not just women who have the capacity to lead this way. My research indicates that these are also behaviors of successful collaborative male leaders.

Now, more than ever, we need all leaders to be empathetic.

For some, particularly men, empathy is not part of the leadership portfolio. But our capacity for empathy is neither an innate trait nor gender-associated. It is a skill we can learn and expand. Empathy requires being curious, listening, and respecting all. It communicates “I care,” “I’m interested,” and “I understand.” Empathy is a muscle that can be developed, but you have to work out.

How can you work your empathy muscle?

Networking! No, not the activity of exchanging cards in a rushed manner. Networking where you gradually build a meaningful relationship with people over time. And the people you choose to network with should be people you “click with,” some of whom will be similar to you while others will be quite different.

To effectively exercise your empathy muscle, try practicing these actions while networking.

  • Pay attention to what others are saying, making a concerted effort to listen, to ask, and to check your assumptions.

  • Show curiosity and interest, proactively reaching out to others and offering help.

  • Solicit others’ opinions first before sharing your own.

  • Watch for non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, while listening to what is actually being said in order to gain a more complete understanding.

Becoming a fit leader in today’s world means developing empathy. It is an antidote to the toxicity around us. It brings us together.

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