Strong leaders understand and show empathy

Showing leadership during difficult times can be challenging. It is important to teach others to exhibit empathy by exhibiting it yourself even when it feels as if it isn’t deserved.

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Photo by National 4-H MORC

Showing leadership during difficult times can be very challenging and downright exhausting. When you are faced with sorrow, being gracious or compassionate to others around you, even when they are not showing those traits, can be the hardest form of leadership to embrace. However, when watching others exhibit poor judgement, having the right words will not only benefit the situation at hand but could make an impact on their future and on others around them as well. It is important to teach others to exhibit empathy by exhibiting it yourself even when it feels as if it isn’t deserved.

When someone isn’t showing understanding or compassion, it makes us feel angry and emotional. With high emotion comes quick reaction, and oftentimes actions we would not normally approve of from ourselves. In difficult situations, it is best to remain calm and slow down our reactions. For some people this means counting to a magical number, for others it means walking away and taking a break; some may need to write their response down and read it over a few times before they actually send it or say it. Whatever the correct approach is for that person, it is always important to not react quickly and hastily.

Take a moment to think about the following:

  • How can I respond to this person to help them see that passing judgment on others is not helping anyone?
  • How can I help place themselves in the situation to consider what it would be like if they were enduring the comments being said?
  • How can I help people to understand and exhibit empathy?

Empathy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the understanding and sharing of emotions and experiences of another person. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone due to his or her situation.

When youth are taught to understand and use empathy, they will become more well-rounded and well-adjusted adults. Learning this trait at a young age will help them deal with many different situations throughout their lives. In turn, they will be stronger leaders and will be able to help others learn the skill when tough times arise.

Teaching empathy from a young age by example is ideal. However, it can be taught at any age. Teaching empathy is less about teaching someone what it means and more about helping them understand how it feels.

Here are a few things to consider when teaching someone about empathy:

  • Talk about their feelings on the situation.
  • Discuss why they do not feel empathy for this person.
  • Have them try to put themselves in the other person’s place, or if that proves too difficult, have them try to share a personal story that relates and will help them to relate to the situation.
  • Guide them through this process and help them understand the other person’s point of view.
  • Have them consider how they can be more compassionate or understanding (empathetic) and help improve the current situation.
  • Encourage them to consider a different way to approach future encounters with this new understanding.

Empathy can be used in many situations. One example may be when posting a comment on social media about a person’s situation; you do not know all the facts or how the person might perceive the post if they were to see it. It is difficult to know the complete story and certainly impossible to know how they are feeling or were feeling when the situation occurred. People should consider their story and think of how they would feel if they read something that could be viewed negatively before posting anything.

Another example of using empathy would be in a bullying situation. A person may not have meant any harm in something they said or did but when they put themselves into the shoes of the other person, they may better understand how it impacted that person negatively. Pointing out that they hurt someone’s feelings will often result in defensiveness, but helping them understand how that person feels will leave a much more lasting impact.

Learning empathy is a lifelong journey and we must practice it on a regular basis in order to fully become the leaders we want to be and to have the skills to teach it to others. If you are interested in more information on how to become a strong leader, contact the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Leadership Civic Engagement team at for more information.

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