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EMPATHY. REALLY?

So, Empathy is one of the five components of Emotional Intelligence. But what is it actually? And why is it so important a quality in effective leaders?

Daniel Goleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence, has described three types of empathy which I feel the veterinary world cannot do without. In this climate of small practices being bought up by bigger practices who become swallowed whole by enormous corporates, surely, we need to be working harder than ever to create a sense of rapport and emotional connection amongst those on the ‘shop floor’.
The first type of empathy is Cognitive Empathy.
By using cognitive empathy, we understand how the other persons mind works. We can see things from their perspective. We understand the language they use and can use a similar language back to them effectively so that they hear us. Cognitive empathy is essential when giving performance feedback for example. It is essential when communicating with clients. Communication is key. However, the downside to cognitive empathy is that it can be used to manipulate others in an unkind fashion by people with twisted motivations. Bullying in the workplace for example.
We all know someone who is abusive emotionally using cognition. They lack the second type of empathy which is Emotional Empathy.

Emotional empathy means “I feel with you”. “I can feel your distress”. However, I can also rejoice in your good news which brings team members together at joyful times.
Emotional empathy is essential for good leadership, for effective teamwork and for understanding the needs and desires of our clients.
When running at high levels, emotional empathy creates a sense of rapport with clients and an emotional connection between team members with gives rise to an overall harmony in teams. These teams are more productive as a result.
The downside to emotional empathy is that if you are the leader who takes it upon themselves to be the sounding board for the team, without the ability to metabolise other people’s concerns, it can lead to emotional exhaustion and eventually to emotional burnout. As a counsellor in my own practice, and also as a team member in my veterinary practice to whom often colleagues in distress will turn, I have to exercise a degree of self-regulation to not burnout. Counsellors debrief onto supervisors who in turn debrief onto others and so the chain of avoiding emotional exhaustion and burnout is strong. However, alongside that chain of debriefing, we must use self-awareness to be conscious of the toll it takes on us, and self-regulation to avoid it burdening us and affecting our own mental wellbeing.

The third type of empathy is called Empathic Concern. “When I see that you are in distress, I have an overwhelming need to spontaneously help you out. “
These are the proactive leaders who speak to the VDS on their vet’s behalf when something terrible has happened. They organise the cpd for the struggling employees. They see someone is distressed and they take them somewhere for a confidential chat before it becomes an untenable situation. They fund counselling for their team members who need it before the crisis or the resignation happens.

In successful practices, especially these days when many of us are working for corporate practices (or will be soon), these three types of empathy need to be running at full capacity from grass roots up to HR in order for the people facing the customers to thrive, be productive, proactive and remain in the profession for their working life.