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Creating Successful Leaders

It seems that, with each passing year, our country is becoming more and more divided and less able (or willing) to understand each other’s perspectives. That’s a shame, because a little empathy can make an enormous difference. When we understand where people are coming from, what they believe, and why they operate the way they do, we can build bridges, instead of putting up walls. We can make progress instead of becoming gridlocked.

I have found that I can find common ground with anyone, no matter how different we are. I can sit across the table from that person and have a perfectly civil conversation. We all have the power to do this, we simply need to follow a few simple guidelines:

Start with Common Ground

It’s always easier to ease into a conversation once you’ve established some rapport and some common ground with the other person. Are you both fond of cooking? Do you both have children? Do you enjoy hiking? Or artwork? Or gardening?

Ask questions and be willing to open up and volunteer information about yourself. Connecting with others takes a measure of vulnerability on both sides.

Ask Questions

Empathy starts with caring about the other person and their point of view. Be curious. Ask open-ended questions (instead of yes/no questions) and get the other person to open up. Be intentional about your question-asking tactics and don’t ask questions with the intention of picking a fight.

Listen

The other half of asking good questions is practicing active listening. It’s great to ask questions, but if you don’t listen to the answer, you’re not going to get anywhere. Oftentimes, we ask questions, thinking we already know the answer. But, it’s possible (even probable) you do NOT know the answer! In fact, it’s best to assume you don’t know the answer to a question when you ask it. That forces you to pay attention and truly listen to what the other person has to say.

Pick Your Battles

It is difficult to change another’s mind over the course of a single conversation. Besides, that shouldn’t be the goal of your interaction in the first place. The goal is understanding. Hopefully, once you’ve demonstrated empathy and a willingness to listen to another’s point of view, that person will behave in kind. If it seems appropriate to share your perspective, start with a bridge-building sentence. For instance:

“I understand you feel X about Y. I see the situation a little differently. This is my point of view…”

If the atmosphere begins to feel hostile and the other person starts putting up walls, that’s a sign that the conversation is going nowhere. If that’s the case, there’s no harm in changing the subject. You’re not giving up; you’re recognizing that traveling further down this road would be futile. Better to end the conversation with some mutual understanding and respect than to push it into hostile territory.

I firmly believe that empathy is the missing tool many of us need to build bridges and establish mutual understanding. Be the bigger person—extend empathy first. Aim for understanding, ask questions, be a tad vulnerable, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start a dialogue and encourage people to come together to solve problems, instead of fighting across the aisle.


MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE.

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