Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others.  Empathy is more than just sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.  Just like with listening, empathy is not passive. It requires self-reflection and self-control.  Start by letting go of defensive and controlling leadership strategies such as “but I’m the President” or “but they are just homeowners.”  Then, use the listening skills you mastered earlier to give people your full attention and strive to get beyond their first complaint and get to the “real” issue.  You can often do this by rephrasing or restating what you’ve heard and asking open ended questions like:

  1. What do you want from the board/association/me?
  2. How will you know when you have it?
  3. What are your obstacles to getting what you want?

Another way to develop empathy is to do genuine perspective shifting – walk in the other person’s shoes, get in their skin.  Imagine what they are experiencing, how it is affecting their life, how frustrated they must be to be behaving the way they are.  Then, cultivate compassion. Go back to the question above and try be seen as a solution to the problem instead of the obstacle.  Emotional Intelligence is a far reaching topic but one that may be worth pursuing on your journey. I’ve done leadership development classes on developing emotional intelligence and can work with boards of any size through a series of sessions to raise awareness, build skills and develop empathic leaders. For more information email me at [email protected].

One response to “Empathy and the Servant Leader
  1. Loura has obviously given this a lot of thought, and has raised some very-good points. I have often pondered this very subject myself. Unfortunately, these days, people see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear. Empathy, or putting themselves in the owners’ place, is sorely lacking. Many board members try to see how much they can do TO people instead of FOR people. The source of this is, of course, ego, as they go about asserting their authority. The root of this is failure to remember that the board is NOT the association–the owners are. The board should represent and serve at the pleasure of its constituents–the owners. I try to explain to boards that the vast majority of owners just want to live their lives happily and in peace, without the strife and discord we see so often. When you adopt this view, many owner actions and violations do not seem so threatening or severe. I guess you could say it’s a kinder and gentler approach, which goes a lot further towards developing a healthy community. And directors need to remember not to bad-mouth and belittle owners, especially in public. I’ve learned that people’s words and behavior is often a reflection of the mental and spiritual pain which they are experiencing in their lives. This applies to both sides, and makes empathetic understanding all-the-more important for all. I see ‘way-too-much inner agony and conflict in folks these days, and some feel very threatened. I am glad that at-least-one law firm recognizes all of this, instead of blindly supporting the board and encouraging hurtful action.
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