There are two skills that I use the most. I also talk about these two things with clients all the time when they are struggling.

They are curiosity and empathy.

Note that I deliberately used the word skill instead of trait. Many don't realize you can develop and become better at both. We all have naturally different levels of curiosity and empathy; however, (barring a psychological condition), you have the ability to develop both these skills, and it's well worth your time to do it.

Here's why:

Leaning into curiosity and empathy will allow you to navigate almost any interpersonal interaction. And, as we move up in leadership, ‘people-stuff' becomes a lot of what we deal with!

Why curiosity and empathy are so powerful

Often, the struggles I hear from clients sound something like this:

  • My boss asked me to put XYZ together and I'm not sure why or what it means for my career.
  • My colleague said XYZ in a meeting. I'm offended. Are they trying to make me look bad?
  • I want to move ahead with XYZ idea, but I'm not getting buy-in. No idea why.
  • I have a poor performer on my team and can't get them to level up.
  • How do I show my manager I'm ready to be at the next level?

As you can potentially see, each of these examples (I could have listed 100 more) are rooted in the exact same problem — my client doesn't know what's going on inside someone else's head, and because of this, they aren't sure how to respond or how to solve a problem.

Our first reaction in these situations is often one of two things:

  1. To assume we know what the other person is thinking (and often we assume the worst)
  2. To try and guess what they may be thinking and prepare for that situation

Neither of these is a great strategy. Instead, with each of these scenarios, we should slow down, ask some questions, and try putting ourselves in the other person's shoes.

Let's take the example of the poor performer.

Too often we make assumptions about this person without even asking. We may assume they're checked out or that they don't care about the work. We may feel annoyed and assume this person isn't even trying. We are assuming instead of getting curious.

When we assume, we aren't leaning into empathy either. We aren't stopping to think, ‘Hmmm… I bet Mike really wants to do well and is struggling with his performance too.'

Once we lean into empathy and consider where the other person may be coming from, we can activate curiosity and have a conversation with them. This may include open-ended questions about how they feel they are performing, what they may be struggling with, and what's going on in their life outside of work.

Empathy becomes even more important when it comes to a difficult manager or colleague! Yep, it's true. So often, when someone isn't treating us the way we want them to, we make ourselves the victim. But that person may have their own struggles: Maybe they're feeling insecure in their role, and that's why they keep interrupting you in a meeting. Maybe they feel as though they're failing as a leader, and that's why they're micromanaging you.

The problem with making yourself a victim is that you become so focused on this, it's impossible to activate curiosity and find out what's really going on. In order to be curious, you also need to be open-minded.

Before I move on let me say this: Just because you are willing to show empathy does not mean you need to put up with toxic work behaviours. However, tapping into empathy can give you some perspective and allow you to lead with curiosity when you approach this person instead of anger or blame.

How to develop better empathy

If you struggle in this area, here are four ways you can develop better empathy:

Mindfulness

The beauty of mindfulness is that it helps us develop much better self-awareness. We'll notice when our thoughts start to run away or when we're ruminating on something. We'll be more likely to catch ourselves if we're judging someone or making assumptions.

Note: Mindfulness is helpful for developing better empathy and curiosity. Frankly, it's beneficial for most things you want to develop in leadership and life.

Listen authentically

How often are you listening to respond vs. listening to understand? Instead of formulating your next statement, really listen to what someone is saying and seek to understand them. Try listening with no agenda, and don't assume you know the answer when you ask a question.

‘Maybe they' exercise

When I was an EVP I hired Jeff Riseley to come do some sessions for my sales team all about mental health and resilience. He shared with us an exercise where instead of assuming malintent, you instead think, ‘maybe they…'.

This could sound like, ‘Maybe they had a bad day and aren't showing up as the best version of themself‘ or ‘Maybe they are feeling stressed about the quarter end, and that's why they seem so impatient‘.

The idea is to find other reasons that someone may be behaving a certain way instead of assuming it's about you. Hint: usually it's not about you!

Get outside your comfort zone

Trying new experiences and getting outside your comfort zone can help you to be more empathetic toward others who may not be like you. Find ways to get uncomfortable – you'll have a whole new appreciation for others' circumstances and may just see some growth in yourself.

Leaning into curiosity

Once you've worked on empathy, you can focus on being more curious. Here are three ways to work on curiosity:

Get intentional

You can build curiosity just like any other behaviour or habit. The first way to start is by intentionally being curious about people. When you meet people, ask them about themselves—their work, their lives, their hobbies—and really get into what they have to say.

The more you can build the habit of curiosity in your daily life, the more natural it will be to lean into curiosity in a work setting.

And as a bonus, you'll find people really enjoy talking to you!

Go down rabbit holes

Whether in conversation or analyzing the latest set of metrics, let yourself go down rabbit holes. This is where you notice something and follow that thread to see where it takes you. By doing this, you tap into curiosity and end up learning all kinds of new things you would have otherwise missed.

Let go of the need to be right

When we need to be right, we are not open to what others have to say and won't be curious to better understand it. Use the rule that the other person is always at least 10% right, and give what they have to say a fair chance.

So, how can you put all of this together?

When it comes to any of the situations I've described above, or the many more that my clients face every day:

Ask questions before assuming or responding.

When someone says something in a meeting or email, and you're not sure what they mean or why they said it, pause, and ask a question. You may want to ask them to clarify what they've shared or to state the goal of what they are proposing to ensure everyone is aligned.

Often, we're afraid to do this because we assume we should know—we should know what they are talking about and what they mean. But the truth is this: if you are confused, there's a good chance others are, too. And ‘faking it 'til you make it' is not the best move here, especially when something is being asked of you.

This is equally important for assuming intent. Often, we assume we know why someone wants something or has behaved a certain way. When you take the time to ask, you often find out you were way off.

There are countless times I've used this approach only to discover the leadership team was not on the same page and we really did need to align on the goal. In this sense, my question was of huge value to the group — otherwise, we would have continued talking in circles for who knows how long.

Like so much else, these concepts are simple but not easy. Master them, and you can solve almost any challenge you face as a leader.

Until next time friends… ✌️💜

Katy