Developing Strong Relationships Through Intercultural Empathy

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.”  Daniel Goleman knows a thing or two about developing empathy, as the author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.  Showing a genuine interest in others and actively listening to them are clearly key components of empathy.  But when we are talking about global leaders who work across many cultures, how does one develop intercultural empathy?  It’s an important question, since social expressions and behaviors vary widely among cultures.  For global leaders, the answer to this question is more than just interesting.  It’s critical to leadership success, because empathy is key to developing strong relationships.

To uncover how intercultural empathy is developed, we first needed to define the concept.  Research by the Najafi Global Mindset Institute, involving senior leaders across the globe, defined intercultural empathy to include four capabilities:

  • Ability to work well with people from other parts of the world
  • Ability to understand nonverbal expressions of people from other cultures
  • Ability to emotionally connect to people from other cultures
  • Ability to engage people from other parts of the world to work together

We then invited internationally experienced senior executive coaches to share how they coach leaders to develop these capabilities.  They offered practical tips that included self-reflection on past experiences, experiential learning through role playing, and cross-cultural mentoring.  But the one that really got to the heart of Daniel Goleman’s quote was to participate in an international corporate volunteering program, like those designed by World Action Teams.  The idea is to devote a substantial chunk of time, energy, and emotion to a meaningful project in another culture.  That kind of total commitment is a selfless act indeed; one that allows leaders to put the four capabilities to work.  Consider adding a relevant community volunteering project to your organization’s global leadership program, if you have not already done so.  The impact of this experience will resonate with your leaders well beyond the length of the leadership program. 

Speaking of impact, stay tuned for next month’s blog on how to develop interpersonal impact as a leader.

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