The memo is in--you can't lead like a robot anymore. Empathy matters.

Now, the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. You can feel sad for me if I stub my pinky toe, for example, if you've stubbed your pinky toe too. That is, empathy is largely experiential. The more you've done and seen and learned, the better the odds are that you really can "get" somebody else as they experience a similar moment.

But unfortunately, bias can get in the way. Our brains link the experiences we have in ridiculously complex ways, and so the way we interpret and feel about a new one is never going to be quite the way someone else interprets and feels about it. And if we take our bias and transfer it to the other person, then we can miss the mark about what they really are thinking and needing. The end result of that is that we don't respond to them as well as we might, and in the worst case scenario, we even can distance ourselves by doing or saying something that they perceive as being out of touch.

As an example, let's say you have someone who was really close to their parent, someone whose parent was never around, and someone whose parent was abusive. Now let's say all three of those individuals experience their parents dying. On the surface, you might think they can all relate to each other because all of them are dealing with the same significant, difficult loss. But because each individual has such a different relationship with their parent, they're going to experience the death totally differently too.

So what can you do? You can't really say, "I know how you feel," because honestly, you probably don't. Not totally.

Instead, just invite conversation. Let them say whatever might come to mind. Laugh with them (or cry). Let them give you their perspective without you assuming what it is. Then share your own story--or at least, elements of it--to help them understand what your perspective is.

For instance, let's go back to the people who lost their parents. Maybe one goes to make breakfast and breaks down because now they remember the way their parent always used to make them the best pancakes ever. The second individual can listen to that story and acknowledge how awesome that must have been, ask a few questions, or mention that it's a good tradition to maintain. And then they might have a huge laugh remembering how their own parent almost burned down the kitchen once because they weren't used to cooking for someone else. Through that conversation, the two people aren't saying the experience is the same or "right" or "wrong." They're just being vulnerable, learning about and acknowledging the other person's reality, and being there for each other.

Now, as a leader (or just as a friend), this is much, much harder than it should be. Why? Because if we're not ready to be vulnerable, then we flat out sometimes don't know what to say in the moment and subsequently resort to the defaults that society already has pinned as "appropriate". And because in the quest to do, do, do, we can want a quick resolution to messy emotional situations so that others don't get in the way of our plan to work more, work more, work more.

If empathy is all about understanding how people feel, then the only way to be empathetic is to take the time to learn. To share experiences, even if those experiences are different. That's the only way to really confirm the swirl of emotions that might be going on and put everything into proper context.

Slow down. Don't just say you get it. Show what it is you get so others know where they can meet you. Then, and only then, will you have the opportunity to really come together and form a comforting, encouraging bond that's strong enough to last a lifetime.

Published on: Aug 13, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.