One of the often-unspoken truths about personal development for leadership is that many of us were never taught “how” to be a good leader.
The college courses provide theoretical foundations for leadership that are long forgotten by the time the student advances into a leadership position.
In my experience, most leaders learn how to be a leader on the job, not in a classroom. However, the corporate training programs for leadership struggle to create leadership transformation largely because they are programs designed to check boxes not forward change in the organization or the world.
I offer this background because I want you to understand how great of a leader you are and will become is entirely up to you. Leaders aren’t walking all around you thinking, hey I know exactly what I’m doing while you are sitting there guessing.
We are all guessing. And right now, we’re making some pretty big guesses and placing some big bets on how we can inspire our workforce to transform itself into a kinder, more empathic organizational culture.
We all recognize that we simply cannot move forward as a company or as a society with division. The only path forward is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Yet, it’s a skill that is often wrapped up as one part of a multi-faceted leadership program. In my experience, a module on empathy isn’t going to take you to mastery in learning how someone feels, especially if you have internal confusion about how you feel most of the time. But a deep exploration of personal development for leadership will.
I don’t do surface level learning. In my experience, that kind of learning is a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, I focus on diving deep into a topic and taking it to mastery then moving onto another topic.
This is a learning style made popular by Tim Ferriss in his book 4 Hour Work Week where he described the process he used to become the kickboxing champion of the world.
Truth be told, I’ve read hundreds of personal development books with hundreds of methodologies. What I’ve discovered is that pieces of the methodology work for me and others don’t.
So I’ve cobbled together the best of the best into what I call the S.E.E. Methodology. S.E.E. stands for simple, effective and efficient as this is a core value for any learning I approach. If it’s not practical and pragmatic, it doesn’t work for me and it won’t work for you.
I’d like to show you how to use this personal development for leadership methodology so you can go deep and take your empathy skills to mastery with results you will notice.
5 Steps to take Your Empathy Skills to Mastery for Personal Development for Leadership
Step 1 – Learn how to raise your awareness of your own emotions
In order to understand how someone else is feeling you really need to take stock of how you are feeling. Emotions are a confusing landscape to navigate as they are more like an onion with several layers than a target with a bullseye.
At several points throughout your day ask yourself, “how am I feeling right now?” Then ask, “is that the primary emotion? Is there an emotion underneath the emotion?” You’ll find one of two things.
You can either identify your emotions the majority of the time. Or you feel something inside and you will struggle to find an emotion that resonates with that feeling. Both are totally normal.
Everyone misidentifies the emotions they are feeling and a lot of us do it the majority of the time. This is mostly because we don’t slow down long enough to explore what is actually happening inside of our body.
Instead, we focus on the negative emotions and can become obsessed with trying to shift and change emotions instead of accurately identifying them. Your only job here is to identify the emotion.
Allow yourself to end there for now. Resolving emotions will come later. It’s helpful to carry a list of the 27 emotions so you can check in on which emotions you’re feeling on the surface and beneath the surface.
Step 2 – Learn how to use your emotions as a guidance system
One of the most profound learnings in my personal development journey has been from the teachings of Bentinho Massaro who shares his understanding of the emotional guidance system we all have available to us.
In summary, he describes our emotions as guide posts that are telling us the distance between our current perspective and the truth.
In this model any form of anxiety or stress is a signal that your perspective is out of alignment with the truest perspective available to you at that moment.
The truest perspective is the perspective that doesn’t cause you anxiety and stress, but rather brings you internal peace and harmony.
How does this look in the wild? Let’s run through a scenario. Cameron is feeling a little stressed out today. They came into the office to find a pile of work that was added to their plate after they left for the day yesterday with a note that says, “can you please finish these before noon?” on the top.
As they look at their agenda they see that they have an open two hours to attempt to complete a project they would’ve allotted four hours to complete.
The words, “I’ll never get this done on time” run through their head and the stress level rises. A sense of overwhelm begins to take hold as they realize they need to get to work now if there’s any chance to get done.
Cameron isn’t alone. We’ve all had a scenario where we were pressed for a deadline and felt stress and anxiety. And we’ve all made it through the situation unscathed at the end to find that our stress wasn’t very helpful after all. Yet, in the moment that stress and panic was very real.
We have an opportunity in the moments when we feel heavy or unwanted emotions to look at our perspective. In Cameron’s case the looming thought that there wasn’t enough time was at the core of their anxiety.
One way they could have shifted their perspective was to stop, take a deep breath and recognize that they can only do what they can do. And more importantly, that whatever isn’t done will not be done, no matter what they did.
That’s simply the truth and it takes a huge sense of pressure off of a very stressful situation. It’s easier to move forward quickly and efficiently with that perspective instead of worrying about what can’t be done.
This is an example of using your emotions as a guidance system and shifting your perspective to create more ease and flow in your life.
Practice this personal development for leadership skill a lot. This takes time and practice to master, but it catches on quickly once you really focus on it. The best part is that you have a lot of opportunities for practice.
According to NIH, on average, people reported experiencing one or several emotions 90% of the time. You’re almost always feeling, which means you’re almost always receiving guidance from your internal GPS. And guess what, that GPS is due north towards empathy.
Also don’t forget to checkout how to use empathic intuition for personal development and leadership?
Step 3 – Resolving uncomfortable emotions
Who likes to be uncomfortable? Like no one, right? I get it. This process is going to bring up a lot of emotions for you and at least some of those emotions will be uncomfortable.
Taking empathy to mastery doesn’t mean you walk around with a bag of your own and everyone else’s emotions on your back. Rather, it means that you can tune into them and not take on anyone else’s baggage. That takes tools. So buckle up because we’re about to get our hands a little dirty.
Uncomfortable emotions are a fact of life. It’s important in personal development for leadership to learn how to master navigating the lower end of the emotional spectrum to find your way to peace and harmony.
As a leader you are likely to run into employees who are experiencing anxiety, stress, sadness and even depression so it’s important for you to know how to hold space when someone is emotionally tender.
If you are uncomfortable witnessing these emotions it will be obvious to your team members and will only increase the anxiety about the situation.
That means you need to learn how to feel uncomfortable because you undoubtedly will. Feeling uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. But it isn’t damaging or harmful. When you feel uncomfortable, settle into the discomfort.
Accept it. Welcome it. Acknowledge it. The trick is not to try to change it, but rather to simply feel it until it’s done. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor taught us that it only takes 90 seconds to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while you simply notice it.
So really the question is, “can I deal with this for 90 seconds?” And the answer is most undoubtedly, yes because emotions can’t hurt you. So settle in and feel uncomfortable for as long as it takes for it to dissipate.
Step 4 – Learn to recognize emotions in others
Once you have a handle on how you are feeling and how to get yourself back to your calm and peaceful center it’s time to look outward. Start noticing the emotions of the room. You’ve experienced this before.
Think about one of those times when you walked into a room and you could cut the tension with a knife. Notice no one had to say anything. You could palpably “feel” the tension in the room.
I call this skill empathic intuition and it’s an important skill for personal development for leadership. It represents the ability to immediately identify the emotions in a room. If you paid attention you might’ve even been able to tell who the tension was coming from.
Practice walking into rooms with other people either at home or when you’re out in public and see if you can get a sense for the emotions of the room. Scan your awareness of each person and notice if you see any shifts in emotions. There are two phases to taking this to mastery.
First, you can tune into a room and get a sense for the vibe of the room. Second, you can tune into someone, sense how they are feeling and correctly identify the emotion.
This step will also take lots of practice. You will be wrong. A lot. There’s an interesting thing that happens when you start developing empathy. You start feeling a lot more and sometimes that can feel confusing in the beginning.
You may not be able to tell if you are feeling your emotions or someone else’s until you really practice tuning into the source of an emotion. So be gentle and kind with yourself in this stage and up your self care.
Emotions can be contagious. I’ve had countless situations where I’ve interacted with someone who was out of emotional alignment and then found myself out of alignment shortly thereafter.
To resolve this, I consciously disconnect myself from other people’s emotions using a visualization of sending their emotions back to their source. This has been profoundly helpful in maintaining my emotional sovereignty.
Remember this and start noticing the emotions without judgement. If you can let go of trying to change the emotions you are feeling, they will resolve with your acceptance of them.
And yes, I have encouraged you to get comfortable in the uncomfortable throughout your empathy journey, but there’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable in a jacuzzi. Just say in.
Step 5 – Practice, practice, practice
Mastery doesn’t come overnight, but it does come in layers. Every layer I have discovered has come after running hundreds of tests with myself and then hundreds of tests with others.
Ultimately this is an internal game so always start by going within and checking in with your own emotional guidance system and putting on your oxygen mask before you jump into someone else’s. Once you’ve achieved your own balance then you can move on to looking at the external world.
Remember, in 90% of your waking moments you have an opportunity to practice this personal development for leadership skill; empathy. Either empathy towards yourself or empathy towards another.
Navigating emotions can be hard work, especially when we aren’t armed with the tools that set us up for success. Instead of going it alone, team up with colleagues or accountability partners and review your successes and failures.
Learning is so much more fun when I’m doing it with friends and colleagues and it can do wonders for accountability to your on-going practice.
After you’ve been practicing for a while empathic intuition will become your waking state and you won’t have to think about it anymore. That’s when you know you’ve developed mastery.
I believe empathy is the core skill needed from today and tomorrow’s leader. However, this isn’t something you can learn from a module in a corporate training program.
It’s a personal development for leadership skill that requires your discipline and your diligence to practice and master. If you can learn how to raise your awareness of your own emotions, use your emotions as a guidance system, resolve your uncomfortable emotions and recognize emotions in others you will have mastered empathy.
We’re trying to create global social change for a kinder, more empathetic world. The only way to do it is together. Are you in? Because this empathy onion isn’t going to peel itself. Let’s buckle up and get to work.