January 28, 2023

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[Sensitive content: This article discusses gun violence]

A gun was aimed a few inches from the center of my forehead. It was small. Maybe 22 calibers. Time slowed down. Fight or flight began and I saw everything clearly in my peripheral vision. A few people watched us through a glass window from their table in the restaurant I had just left. My friends stood a few feet away, wide-eyed and scared.

You may be wondering how I got into this precarious situation to begin with. Just before that I walked out of a restaurant. It was late, maybe 1am. I had felt this boy staring at me. At this point I decided to walk up to his car and ask him “how are you?” Have I need to do this? No. Was it provocative? Yes. And now we all know how this questionable decision could have cost me my life.

It goes without saying that this meeting left a lasting impression on me. It has helped shape who I am, the decisions I make and who I strive to become. You may be surprised to learn that this pivotal moment didn’t mark the end of my abrasive behavior (that came later), but it did serve as the most poignant reminder of how conversations can go sideways — fast.

Over the years I have learned that using empathy in such precarious situations – or even less volatile ones – has enormous power to turn situations around and create positive outcomes. Especially in business.

Related: What Is Empathy And Why Is It So Important For Great Leaders?

While many in the business world fixate on data, analytics and technology, they should spend an equal amount of time analyzing and understanding people’s motivations, emotions and different perspectives. I am, of course, talking about prioritizing one’s emotional intelligence. The most gifted leaders out there understand how their actions and words affect those around them. They excel at social awareness and practice empathy.

This did not come naturally to me. Early in my career, I was willing to achieve my goals at any cost, regardless of how my actions affected others. Example: If someone from another department blocked or delayed my project, I would jump over them and apply downward pressure by bringing in their manager. It always worked. My project magically sped up or unblocked almost immediately. I justified my actions because they were in the best interest of the company.

But the company is made up of people. People with feeling. And when that kind of downward pressure is put on someone, it sours your relationship with them. They know you bypassed them. They feel belittled, pressured, and then forced into compliance. And you are the source of those feelings. Not only will this ruin your relationship, but it will create friction on future projects because that person (and their team) won’t be interested in working with you. The end does not justify the means. As the late great Maya Angelou once said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Instead of applying pressure, exerting influence or forcing colleagues to follow the rules, I could have gained their support and inspired them to volunteer. I could have taken them for lunch or coffee. I could have asked about their challenges. I asked what they were dealing with and how I could help them. People are smart. They will see what you are trying to do, but most will appreciate it. It may take more time in the short term, but overall you will strengthen the relationship. In addition, your project will be completed faster and with a higher level of quality. And who knows, you might pick up ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.

Related: Why Empathy Is A Crucial Entrepreneurial Skill (And How To Develop Yours)

An overwhelming amount of research suggests that empathy and personal interest increase employee loyalty and trust. In Harvard Business Review Emotional Intelligence Series on Empathy, Emma Sappala writes how kindness and optimistic communication affect performance more than the number of zeros on an employee’s salary. The author explains in another article that reacting with anger or frustration erodes loyalty.

A study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University shows that employees become more loyal when leaders tap into empathy more deeply. Neuroimaging research confirms that our brains respond more positively to leaders who use empathy than to leaders who don’t.

As with any other skill, practicing empathy can be developed, although it takes time. Every person is different, so we all need to discover the triggers that inspire and motivate us.

Here are a few tips for practicing empathy:

  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their point of view.
  • Validate your understanding of what you think you hear by summarizing what is being said.
  • Be aware of body language and adjust your communication strategy accordingly.
  • Be direct, but considerate – ask open-ended questions.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on past experience.
  • Don’t punish anyone in public if you can do it privately.

In short, understanding your employees builds trust, which in turn improves performance. Congratulate yourself on trying to understand them. Even if you fail.

I’ve come a long way since that moment when I was held at gunpoint. Lucky for me, the situation quickly escalated and I got another chance to reassess my ways – both personally and professionally. After working on my emotional intelligence and practicing empathy, I now know how to “read the room” and connect emotionally with those around me. I can safely say, you won’t catch me with a lone stranger in the middle of the night asking provocative questions. Ultimately, business leaders are so good that they are self-aware and understand the risk factors ahead.

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