Over the past few months I’ve been talking about the skills required to be an effective leader. So far I’ve talked about listening, self-awareness and conversational intelligence. Another skill that is being increasingly recognized as an essential leadership skill is empathy. Although we’re not seeing it demonstrated much on the national stage, empathy has been called THE skill for the 21st Century.

A recent Forbes article describes empathy as “the ability to understand, recognize and appreciate the way others are feeling, even if it is different from what you are feeling.” A more visual description is from the book To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Learning to understand others’ point of view – to figure out “where they’re coming from” – has myriad benefits in the workplace and in life in general. It improves interpersonal relationships, teamwork, negotiations, collaboration, sales, customer service, even parenting!

And empathy (which is one of the components of emotional intelligence) can be learned, according to a study conducted by Cambridge University. In the largest study ever conducted to determine whether the ability to show empathy is based on genetics, results showed that the ability to do so is only 10% genetic. So…90% of the time empathy can be learned.

It requires practice. So how do you do it? International Executive Coach Dr. Melinda Fouts has developed an Empathy Self Audit to help “assess your empathy and do some self-reflection.” Here are a few of the questions in her self-audit:

  • Are you aware of how others are feeling? Or are you oblivious?
  • Do you try to avoid hurting the feelings of others?
  • Do you respect the way others feel, or do you put them down or tease them?
  • Do you care about the feelings of others?
  • Does the display of strong emotions bother you, or do you understand and appreciate what they are experiencing?
  • Are there times you are not sensitive to someone’s feelings? If so, why?
  • Can you reflect back what you heard the person saying using the same adjectives that the person used to express their emotions?

Spend some time thinking about these questions. What stands out to you? Do your mounting responsibilities, deadlines, or stress get in the way of your being sensitive toward others’ thoughts and feelings? If so, take a step back and think about how you can practice empathy. As a leader in the 21st Century, it’s a key gateway to your personal and career success.

Next time I’ll share some examples of how integrating empathy into the culture leads to organizational success.