Collectively there are approximately 7.8 billion people on this planet!  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic is an experience that we are all sharing worldwide. It may seem surreal to some people because it is an event like no other that we have experienced in modern times. The Black Plague of the 1300s is said to be the most similar to what we are experiencing today with regards to the transformational changes that may take place to society.  Like the plague, this virus has no boundaries. Covid-19 is affecting the young, the old, the middle-aged. It is affecting Italians, Americans, and Chinese alike. It attacks the rich, the poor, the middle class. It has no mercy for the race, color, ethnicity, age, or social status. We are not suffering from war or some human attack against another. This is a virus that has no boundaries and no borders. 

Covid-19 worldwide is causing the human race to experience the same unified issue. We can not be against each other in a crisis like this. We must support each other.  We must look objectively as a whole on what we can do better and how we can be better to each other. Subjectively each individual certainly has their own perspective and experience to share, but objectively we are one unified front. One thing we can share is how to nurture empathy so others can share their subjective story and feel supported in this great time of need.

In today’s current crisis, it is more important than ever to develop empathy in general, but especially with those you lead. First, a leader must truly understand what it means to be empathetic. Empathy is not shown through casual, canned comments of I know, it sucks! Or Yes, we are all in the same boat. Or Hey, it really is not affecting our team. Comments like this are dismissive, diminishing, and oftentimes very hurtful to others. 

Being an empathetic leader takes practice and reflection. Empathy is the ability to identify with someone else’s feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. It is the ability to have compassion and appreciation for another’s experiences. As Oprah Winfrey states, it is the ability to relate to others by providing inspiration and empowerment. During a crisis like this, it is important for a leader to be empathetic to each individual on the team.  Most importantly, recognize that this pandemic is touching each individual differently. 

But first, to express empathy with others, it is vital that you understand your own feelings in these unprecedented times. Self-reflection is the key to understanding your own feelings. Are you feeling overwhelmed, scared, and confused yourself? It is okay to feel this way and to seek empathy and support from others. In order to provide empathy to others, you must care and understand how this crisis is affecting you personally – and keep in mind it could change daily, weekly, monthly depending upon the situation at hand.  Once you are in touch with your own feelings, you can better spread empathy to others and get into a mindset of being more compassionate with the feelings of your team members. 

Empathy allows you to listen – deeply listen – to others.  Appreciate them. Recognize them. Developing empathy is a skill you must practice to perfect. It may not come easy or naturally and there is a fine line between becoming dismissive in your words, versus being empathic in your words. 

When someone says they are scared, do you say, “There’s no need to be scared, it hasn’t happened to you.  When they say they are staying isolated with the shelter in place orders, do you say You are being irrational, this pandemic is being overblown by the media.  Or Don’t worry, there are only a few cases in this county. 

So how can you practice empathy? Below are some tips, techniques, and examples for becoming a more empathetic leader:

  • Acknowledge – First you must acknowledge the feelings your team members are expressing.  You can do this purely by listening deeply.  Do not dismiss their comments with quick responses like This too will pass. or Look at the bright side, your family members do not have it.  This type of response does not show that you heard them.  Instead you may respond with I understand that this is frightening. I wish I could say something that could make this less scary for you. or I can’t say anything that will help to ease your fears, but know that I am here to talk through them with you.
  • Care and Concern – And always remember, one way to show empathy is simply being a good human being and showing others that you care. You can do this by sending a hand-written note or card of encouragement, a gift card for a cup of coffee, or perhaps a bouquet of flowers.  Any small gesture to let others know you feel for them and their personal situation during the pandemic.Share – Share with your team members how you feel, too.  Again, avoid minimizing what they are saying. Instead of saying Don’t be afraid. or You’re being paranoid.  Let them know they are not alone.  You can say words like, I have had similar feelings. or I can understand why you feel that way. 
  • Connect  – Be interested in your team members.  Ask How are you today? Is there anything you need to make today just a little easier? 
  • Encourage – Remember, empathy is not about fixing the situation. It is about leading with your heart and showing that you care.  Let them know they are strong.  Let them know you are proud of the way they have been able to manage work, life and the situation through the months of lockdown. 
  • Gratitude – By expressing gratitude, you validate that you are sympathetic to their particular subjective situation. You can say things like I know work is difficult when you are also the teacher and the caregiver, but I appreciate the work you are doing during this time. 
  • Listen – Sometimes all your team members may need is a shoulder to lean on. They may be craving a third party to hear their worries, frustrations, or thoughts.  Just being there to let them talk through their anxieties can make them feel better. There is no need to fill every silent moment. Be slow to talk and instead just sit back and listen.
  • Support – Ask the question How can I help? You can remind them I’m here if you need a friend. Use words like I am so sorry this is happening.  I wish I could fix it, but just know that I am here to support you in any way I can as we work through these challenges.

In summary, empathy is the emotional vaccine that we are all begging for during these trying times. Remember that so many people are experiencing a different story, though we are all in the same pandemic. Some people have lost their jobs, or loved ones.  Some are so paralyzed by fear they do not go out at all and are becoming lonely. Some are dealing with raising children, home schooling, and trying to emotionally support their own family members and friends all while working full time through this crisis.  Each person’s individual story is different and it is vital to you as a leader to help your team to get through these challenges by lending an empathetic ear when they need it most.