October 11

How to Lead Empathically by Seeking First to Understand


One of the biggest buzz words in leadership is “emotional intelligence” or “EQ.” Generally defined as the ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, leaders with high EQ are better able to guide teams through stormy waters and captivate the attention of stakeholders in a winsome way.

Connecting with those in their spheres of influence, it’s important for leaders to set a consistent standard of messaging on what seeking to understand looks like. Whether serving in a formal or informal leadership capacity, what does emotionally intelligent leadership look like?

Seek First to Understand

Introduced in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit 5 introduced the notion that seeking first to understand is paramount to leading effectively. This concept empowers emotionally intelligent leaders to advance beyond mere empathy to supercharge their listening skills for success.

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Dr. Steven R. Covey.

Lead with Love

With self-awareness, emotional intelligence, courage, and influence, empathic leadership sounds a lot like love. In his TED Talk, author and social entrepreneur Matt Tenney dared to propose: Why the Best Leaders Make Love the Top Priority.

It’s been said that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. When prioritized in the order of profit, customers, and then employees, organizations fail to serve customers well. And employees seem to always have their eye on the next best offer to another job.

Instead of bossing from a “bottom-line” approach, what if managers chose to be leaders who loved employees well?

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, exemplifies the art of leading with love. Getting down in the trenches with employees may be the secret for being profitable for over 40 years in a row. But he wasn’t alone.

Harvard researchers followed 207 publicly traded companies to discover that people focused employers increased net income by over 700% while the profit focused companies only increased by 1%. Perhaps Peter Drucker was right when he declared that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s easy for leaders to confuse understanding with merely listening to those they lead. Yet, Covey made a point of highlighting the importance of clarifying intention to ensure the message is received clearly. Before attempting to be understood, influence others, or make decisions, great leaders actively listen for content, emotion, and context.

At best, most of us are wired to listen with the intent to reply. At worst, we pretend to listen, ignore the other person, or pick and choose what we want to hear while missing their point entirely. Adapting our communication style and use of language forges connection with our audience and builds relationship.

Born This Way

In a study by emotional intelligence expert, Travis Bradberry and TalentSmartEQ, they discovered that 90% of top performers scored high in EQ. They also discovered that EQ is the #1 predictor of workplace performance. And, like any other skill, it’s one that can be developed.

Because emotionally intelligent leadership can be learned, it’s important to recognize its value. These leaders are shown to have higher performing teams and to know their customers better.

But Why Is That?

Think about a great leader you’ve had in the past. When you had questions, concerns, challenges, or needs, did they shun you and make you feel as if you were a burden? Like many who practice the art of emotionally intelligent leadership and understanding those you lead, they likely made a priority of seeking first to understand you.

Here’s an example: An employee is going through family challenges which lead to increased use of alcohol, poor eating and exercising habits, and lack of quality sleep. When showing up late to work, missing deadlines, or forgetting responsibilities, the “boss” pops by the employee’s desk for a talk. Instead of closing the door and inviting connection through empathy, the “manager” rips into the employee, yelling about how this is hurting her reputation and costing the company time and money.

Witnessed through the lens of emotionally intelligent leadership and seeking first to understand, how might the encounter look differently?

This employee may think he is undervalued and disrespected, so he won’t likely feel compelled to accomplish individual or team goals. When it doesn’t feel safe to share what is really going on, employees are likely to make more mistakes and pull further away from engagement with the team, and especially with leadership.  

What if the “boss” or “manager” focused on emotionally intelligent leadership and seeking first to understand? Attuned to the needs of the employee, the leader seeks to understand what may be going on outside of work that could be causing the missteps. When an employee believes he has a safe place to fall or fail, he is more likely to share ways in which the leader may be able to help.

As employees and teams feel seen and heard, they know they are respected, valued, appreciated, and supported. And that looks a lot like love.

Even in difficult times, while confrontations may end in disagreement, they are rooted in respect and healthy exchanges of communication where both parties feel listened to and understood.

Emotionally intelligent leadership is necessary for driving teams in the right direction. While there are countless ways to harness empathic leadership and seeking first to understand, effective leaders create opportunities for the connection of interpersonal communication, formal or informal. Like a beautiful symphony, it is possible to Lead Like the Great Conductors  and listen to understand rather than merely hearing the notes of the orchestra. Learning to listen to truly understand propels your leadership and your organization to new heights. Mindfully begin by taking those next steps today.


EQ and your positive communication skills work together as you lead your organization. Look to enhance your EQ as you learn to become a more effective leader

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