I lacked this one critical skill that almost cost me my career and my life

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[Sensitive content: This article discusses gun violence]

A gun was pointed inches from the center of my forehead. It was small. Maybe 22 caliber. Time slowed down. Fight or flight started and I saw everything in my peripheral vision clearly. A couple of people were watching us through a plate glass window from their table at the restaurant I had just left. My friends were a few feet away, wide-eyed and scared.

You might be wondering how I got into this precarious situation to begin with. Well, moments before I walked out of a restaurant. It was late, maybe 1am. I felt this kid staring at me. At this point I decided to go over to his car and ask him, “what’s going on?” did I need to do this? No. Was it provocative? Yes. And now we all know how this questionable decision could have cost me my life.

It goes without saying that this meeting has made a lasting impression on me. It has helped shape who I am, the decisions I make and who I strive to become. However, you may be surprised to learn that this defining moment did not mark the end of my abrasive behavior (which came later), it did serve as the most poignant reminder of how conversations can go sideways – quickly.

Over the years, I have learned that the use of empathy, in such precarious situations – or even less volatile ones – has enormous power to turn situations around to create positive results. Especially in business.

Related: What is empathy, and why is it so important to great leaders?

While many in business fixate on data, analytics and technology, they should spend as much time analyzing and understanding the motivations, emotions and different perspectives of people. I am of course talking about prioritizing one’s emotional intelligence. The most gifted leaders out there understand how their actions and words affect those around them. They excel in social awareness and practice empathy.

This did not come naturally to me. Early in my career, I was willing to achieve my goals at any cost, regardless of how my actions affected others. Example: If someone from another department was blocking or slowing down my project, I would jump over them and apply downward pressure by inserting their manager. It always worked. My project was magically accelerated or blocked almost instantly. I justified my actions because they were in the best interest of the company.

But the company is made up of people. People with feelings. And when that kind of downward pressure is put on someone, it worsens your relationship with them. They know you bypassed them. They feel belittled, pressured and then forced to comply. And you are the source of these feelings. Not only does this destroy your relationship, but it also adds friction to future projects because that person (and their team) won’t be invested in working with you. The end does not justify the means. As the late, great Maya Angelou once said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Instead of applying pressure, leveraging, or forcing peers to comply, I could have gotten their buy-in and inspired them to volunteer. I could have taken them out for lunch or coffee. I could have asked about their challenges. Asked what they were dealing with and how I could help them. People are smart. They will see what you are trying to do, but most will appreciate it. It may take more time in the short term, but overall you will strengthen the relationship. In addition, your project will be completed faster and at a higher level of quality. And who knows – maybe you’ll pick up some ideas you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.

Related: Why Empathy Is a Crucial Entrepreneurial Skill (And How to Develop Yours)

An overwhelming body of research suggests that empathy and personal interest increase employee loyalty and trust. IN Harvard Business Review’s emotional intelligence series on empathy, Emma Sappala writes how kindness and upbeat communication have a bigger impact on performance than the number of zeros on an employee’s paycheck. The author explains in another article that responding with anger or frustration erodes loyalty.

A study by Jonathan Haidt from New York University shows that employees become more loyal when leaders tap deeper into empathy. Neuroimaging research confirms that our brains respond more positively to leaders who use empathy compared to those who do not.

As with any skill, practicing empathy can be developed, although it takes time. Each person is different, so we all have to discover the triggers that inspire and motivate us.

Here are some tips for practicing empathy:

  • Put yourself in other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.
  • Confirm your understanding of what you think you hear by repeating what is being said.
  • Be aware of body language and adapt your communication strategy accordingly.
  • Be direct but considerate – ask open-ended questions.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on past experiences.
  • Don’t punish someone in public when it can be done in private.

Bottom line: Understanding your employees builds trust, which in turn improves performance. Congratulate yourself for trying to understand them. Even when you fail.

I’ve come a long way since the moment I was held at gunpoint. Fortunately for me, the situation quickly escalated and I was given another chance to rethink my ways – both personally and professionally. After working on my emotional intelligence and practicing empathy, I now know how to “read the room” and connect emotionally with people around me. I can safely say that you will not take me walking up to a lonely stranger in the dead of night and asking provocative questions. Ultimately, being self-aware and understanding the risk factors presented before you is what makes business leaders great.

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