How to Lead with Empathy and Compassion in Times of Crisis
Updated: Oct 25
Imagine how you would feel if your leader listened to you attentively, validated your emotions, expressed their own feelings authentically, appreciated your efforts, offered you help and support, and treated themselves with kindness and self-compassion. You would feel more engaged, motivated and loyal to your leader and your organization, right?
That is the power of empathy and compassion in leadership. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine how they feel. Compassion is the willingness to act on that empathy and help others who are suffering or struggling.
Empathy and compassion are essential skills for effective leadership, especially in times of crisis, change and uncertainty. They can help you build trust, loyalty and engagement with your team, as well as improve your communication, collaboration and problem-solving.
But how can you lead with empathy and compassion? Here are some tips and examples to help you:
Listen actively and attentively to your team members
Listening is the first step to showing empathy and compassion. When you listen to your team members, you show them that you care about them and their perspectives. You also learn more about their needs, emotions and challenges.
To listen actively and attentively, you need to:
Ask open-ended questions, such as "How are you feeling today?", "What are you working on?", or "What are the main challenges you are facing right now?"
Paraphrase what they say, such as "So what I hear you saying is...", "If I understand correctly...", or "It sounds like..."
Show interest and curiosity, such as "Tell me more about...", "That's interesting...", or "I'm curious about..."
Avoid interrupting, judging or dismissing their concerns, such as "Don't worry about it", "That's not a big deal", or "You should just..."
For example, one of my team members was feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the workload and deadlines. Instead of telling him to work harder or faster, I listened to him patiently and asked him how he was coping. I paraphrased what he said and showed interest in his situation. I also thanked him for sharing his feelings with me.
Validate their feelings and emotions
Validating is the second step to showing empathy and compassion. When you validate your team members' feelings and emotions, you acknowledge and respect how they feel, even if you do not agree or understand. You also make them feel heard, understood and accepted.
To validate their feelings and emotions, you need to:
Name their emotions, such as "I can see that you are feeling...", "You seem to be feeling...", or "I understand that you are feeling..."
Express empathy, such as "I'm sorry that you are feeling...", "I can imagine how...", or "That must be hard for you..."
Avoid minimizing, invalidating or criticizing their emotions, such as "It's not that bad", "You shouldn't feel that way", or "You are being too..."
For example, one of my team members was feeling frustrated and angry by a client's feedback. Instead of telling her to calm down or get over it, I validated her feelings and emotions. I named her emotions and expressed empathy for her situation. I also assured her that her feelings were normal and valid.
Express your own feelings and emotions in an appropriate and authentic way
Expressing is the third step to showing empathy and compassion. When you express your own feelings and emotions in an appropriate and authentic way, you share your challenges, fears and hopes with your team. You also make yourself more relatable, trustworthy and human.
To express your own feelings and emotions in an appropriate and authentic way, you need to:
Use "I" statements, such as "I feel...", "I think...", or "I hope..."
Be honest, vulnerable and respectful, such as "I'm struggling with...", "I'm afraid of...", or "I'm grateful for..."
Avoid overwhelming them with negativity or personal issues, such as "I hate this job", "I have no idea what I'm doing", or "I have a lot of problems at home."
For example, one of my team members was feeling anxious about a new project. Instead of pretending that everything was fine or hiding my own doubts, I expressed my own feelings and emotions in an appropriate and authentic way. I used "I" statements and shared my challenges, fears and hopes with him. I also respected his feelings and emotions.
Show appreciation and gratitude for your team members
Appreciating is the fourth step to showing empathy and compassion. When you show appreciation and gratitude for your team members, you recognize their efforts, achievements and contributions. You also make them feel valued, respected and motivated.
To show appreciation and gratitude for your team members, you need to:
Be specific, timely and sincere, such as "Thank you for...", "I appreciate your...", or "You did a great job on..."
Celebrate their successes and support their growth, such as "Congratulations on...", "I'm proud of you for...", or "You have improved a lot on..."
Avoid generic, delayed or insincere praise, such as "Good work", "Well done", or "Nice try."
For example, one of my team members completed a challenging task on time and with high quality. Instead of giving him generic or delayed praise, I showed appreciation and gratitude for his work. I was specific, timely and sincere in my feedback. I also celebrated his success and supported his growth.
Offer help and support when needed
Helping is the fifth step to showing empathy and compassion. When you offer help and support when needed, you provide your team members with the resources, guidance and feedback they need. You also make them feel supported, empowered and confident.
To offer help and support when needed, you need to:
Ask them how you can help them, such as "How can I support you?", "What do you need from me?", or "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Provide them with the resources, guidance and feedback they need, such as "Here are some tools that might help you...", "Here are some tips that might help you...", or "Here is some feedback that might help you..."
Be flexible, adaptable and responsive to their needs, such as "Let me know if you need more time", "Let me know if you need more help", or "Let me know if you have any questions."
For example, one of my team members was having difficulty with new software. Instead of leaving him alone or telling him to figure it out by himself, I offered him help and support when needed. I asked him how I could help him, provided him with the resources, guidance and feedback he needed, and was flexible, adaptable and responsive to his needs.
Practice self-care and self-compassion
Self-care and self-compassion are the sixth step to show empathy and compassion. When you practice self-care and self-compassion, you take care of your own physical, mental and emotional well-being. You also set a positive example for your team and inspire them to do the same.
To practice self-care and self-compassion, you need to:
Set healthy boundaries, such as "I need some time off", "I can't do this right now", or "I have other priorities."
Manage your stress, such as "I need to relax", "I need to exercise", or "I need to meditate."
Seek help when you need it, such as "I need to talk to someone", "I need some advice", or "I need some support."
Treat yourself with kindness, forgiveness and understanding, such as "I'm doing my best", "I'm not perfect", or "I'm not alone."
For example, I was feeling burned out and exhausted by the workload and pressure. Instead of pushing myself harder or ignoring my own needs, I practiced self-care and self-compassion. I set healthy boundaries, managed my stress, sought help when I needed it, and treated myself with kindness, forgiveness and understanding.
Leading with empathy and compassion can make you a more effective, inspiring and respected leader. It can also make your team more productive, motivated and satisfied. Empathy and compassion are not weaknesses, but strengths that can help you create a positive impact in your organization and beyond.
About the Author
Joseph “Paul” Manley is the Founder and Principal of Risk Mitigation Technologies, LLC, a Training and Independent Consulting Firm with a focus on violence detection, prevention, response, and recovery. Paul is a retired Massachusetts Police Lieutenant, Adjunct Lecturer, Board-Certified Workplace Violence and Threat Specialist, Security Expert, and Trainer.