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I find that managing people is a real challenge: People don't always behave rationally, and I have so much on my plate that it is hard to stop and understand why. I also have little interest in office politics. Am I doomed as a manager? Some advice on developing better people skills, please.

The fact that you are inquiring about how to develop better people skills tells me you are open to learning, and that's a quality that says you are ready to become a better leader and far from doomed.

As a manager you wear many hats. Certainly managing your deliverables and projects is a big part of your role. Equally important is managing your people and helping them grow to their potential. This involves the ability to understand them and calls for strong empathy skills.

Empathy, one of many dimensions within the spectrum of emotion intelligence (EQ or EI) skills, refers to the ability to be aware of, to understand and to appreciate the feelings of others. It involves tuning in and being sensitive to what, how and why people act the way they do. Empathetic leaders are at an advantage because in any relationship – business or otherwise – they can adapt how they relate by having a sense of where the other person is coming from.

Empathy may come naturally to some people, but for others, they may need to develop their skills. Here are a few thought-starters to help you ramp up this dimension within your people skills.

Flex your curiosity muscle. Relying on quick assumptions can limit our perspectives and our understanding of situations and people. Recognize that each individual has their own unique motives, sense of meaning and habits, good or otherwise. Rather than relying on quick assumptions, practice being more curious about what this person is experiencing and what might be the root of their behaviour and/or the situation. You may be surprised by what you learn. New insights can bring new solutions to how you relate to people.

Stand in their shoes for a moment. All too often, we consider other people's actions from our own perspectives and what we would do. Since we are each unique with varying beliefs, values and experiences, it is important to consider what it would be like to stand in their shoes. Consider as many dimensions of their situation as possible. This exercise may open up awareness to what they are thinking, feeling and experiencing, giving insight into their behaviour. Your enhanced understanding may lead to more choices and compassion in how you relate with them.

Ask questions to develop an empathetic mindset. Questions are useful in that they can help focus our thoughts in a particular direction. Practise asking yourself questions that put you into an empathetic mindset. Rather than reacting and thinking in frustration, "What's wrong with them?" -- change your internal questions to empathetic questions such as: "I wonder what is going on for them right now. I wonder what they are thinking, understanding, feeling, etc."

Equally useful is to ask others questions to better understand the situation and their perspectives. E.g. "What is going on for you?" "What do you see as the issue?" Make sure you are not holding the view that you already know the answer. Be open in a genuine way.

To put all this in more concrete terms, consider this example: Jane has been coming to work late the past month and missing a few meetings. Her work is starting to suffer a bit. An unempathetic manager might assume she stopped caring about her work or has become lazy. An empathetic manager will reflect on what might be prompting this behaviour and may likely talk to Jane to explore the situation. In doing so, she may learn that Jane has been dealing with a personal crisis at home (e.g. divorce, illness).

This awareness may lead to a more compassionate and supportive response. Perhaps she may help Jane make some temporary adjustments to her workload or offer some support with the organization's employee assistance programs. In the long run, this can make a meaningful difference to Jane's sense of engagement with the organization and the relationship with her manager.

Reframe how you think about your time. I hear your concern about not having a lot of time. However, the emotionally intelligent leader recognizes the value in investing appropriate time and effort to develop these skills and to better understand the perspective of others. This will help you foster better working relationships and manage people more effectively.

As you develop your skills, you will become more fluent in this habit and find the reflection may not be as time-consuming as you think. If you are serious about developing your people skills, then consider each situation as a meaningful opportunity to practise your new skills. You will be a better leader for it and your people will likely be better off as well.

Good luck!

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