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  • Writer's pictureAmy Clark

Leading with Empathy: The Four Lessons Learned from a Golden Retriever

A couple of weeks back, I had a minor surgical procedure. Like most of its kind, I had to follow strict instructions the day before, including limitations on what I could drink and eat. I distracted myself with work for a while, and as the day progressed, I found myself very low on energy, suffering from nasty headache and overall, not feeling very well.

As I relaxed on the couch, my golden retriever, Max, jumped up to sit beside me. After a while, I noticed Max mimicking things I would do. I would adjust my position, he would follow; I would sigh, and he would do the same; my husband would offer him a treat, he showed no interest. Of all the things Max could do at that moment–playing fetch in the backyard, pulling stuffing out of his toys, or enjoying that treat–he stayed with me. In that moment, he showed me what empathy can look like–he was feeling with me and allowed me to be in that place.

Empathy is described as the ability to understand and feel with another. It is about identifying with another person, sense what they are feeling, and responding in a similar way. I have experienced firsthand how Max expresses empathy, and it makes sense. A domesticated animal, dogs have evolved over thousands of years by observing humans, reading our emotions, and adjusting their response accordingly.

For humans, empathy is something we are wired for, as it is how we create connection with others. You are with someone who is sad; you begin to feel sad; you are around someone who is smiling, and you can’t help but smile. Yet, it can become difficult because it requires us to invoke emotions that may surface painful memories, or we may not have a full understanding to know what to feel, or we get into problem-solving mode because that is our natural response–we want to be the fix so we can all move on.

This recent display of empathy had me thinking, what else can we learn about empathy from how dogs show emotions? Through the perspective of Max, the golden retriever, we can position ourselves to effectively lead with empathy by incorporating these four methods in our interactions with others:

1. Walk alongside another:

My regular walks with Max have become my meditation time. I use it to step away from the stressful moments of the day, give myself a break when I am stuck, or deal with a difficult emotion. Walking alongside me, Max helps me reframe through walking.

The same holds true during our experiences with others. The next time you find a coworker or member of your team struggling, “walk alongside” them for a while to experience what they are experiencing. Ask questions to provoke thought, allow time to process emotions, and, at the right moment, guide them through steps to overcome their challenges. In a recent conversation with a team member, they shared their sense of feeling overwhelmed. When I responded with: “tell me more about what that is like for you”, it expanded my understanding so I could be more skillful in my response and guidance.

2. Be comfortable being silent

As I sit on a Saturday afternoon at my dining table writing this article, the only sound is that of my fingers hitting the keyboard. Max is laying at my feet, allowing this silence to continue as I focus. As much energy as any golden retriever would have, he is holding it in, so I have my moment to express my thoughts. (I’m sure I will pay for it later when he finally shows his pent-up energy)

Silence may not be the most comfortable situation; yet replacing our need to respond with taking the moment to identify with another is a powerful moment. We imagine what another is going through, put ourselves in a place in time where we felt the same, and let it inform how we respond. Consider how you can embrace your silence by allowing others to be center stage and giving them their moment to share a unique perspective. Listening is the purest form of empathy and is the most respectful act we can give one another.

3. Stay in tune with signals

I get up from my chair, Max is at attention; I gather my purse and keys, Max wonders if he’s going for a ride; I pick up his fetch toy in the yard, Max watches my movement to know when to start running. Max is in tune with my signals, is socially aware, and is on alert when it matters the most.

“Know your audience”. A term that cues us to validate that we understand what others care about and anticipate their needs, so we prepare or respond accordingly. When showing empathy, we put ourselves in the place of another-it is not from our perspective, it is from their perspective. We can do this by tuning into their thoughts and emotions by observing body language, surfacing what you know about their personal or professional experiences in the past, and being curious. Ask questions like: What were you feeling? How do you want to respond? What is your motivation right now?

4. Think of yourself less

That day a couple weeks ago, Max thought of himself less. He sensed what I was feeling and responded by delaying the typical events that would occur in a day. Max was my support, my partner, and my balance. There wasn’t a fix or an alternative.

This is where it can become difficult. We naturally seek ways to help others solve their problem, relieve their stress, or show them how it “isn’t that bad”. This helps us feel better about the situation, knowing we were of service. Sometimes we must recognize that there may not be a “fix”. We need to think of ourselves less and forgo our own relief by removing a problem. Sometimes this means setting aside planned priorities at the time and give others the space they need to move through the situation.

Empathy is a virtue we must demonstrate as leaders and team members. When practiced, it nurtures an inclusive environment where people see they have a voice, their perspective is valued, connections are built, and we see opportunities for growth.

Where can you lead from a place of empathy today?

Keep growing.

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