What’s empathy got to do with it?

EmpathyOne of the leadership programmes I co-facilitate has empathy as a core learning in one of its modules. As I discovered, empathy is surprisingly hard to teach.

Empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Why does empathy matter?

One of the strongest push backs from the participants was “why”? Why does this matter? Why do we need to show it? Is it really our job, or is this the role of someone more senior?

There are a number of inputs into this thinking: personality type, thinking styles, life and work experiences to name a few. Some people will naturally be more empathetic by nature of their personality, or their work or their life experiences and how they’ve experienced empathy themselves.

I approached the answers to the “whys” in a “what’s in it for you” manner. That by showing genuine empathy, you usually make life easier for yourself. You can get to the nub of the issue quicker. You can generally reduce unnecessary conflict. Solutions that may not have been immediately apparent become more obvious.

It is also true that lack of people skills is one of the things that most holds people back from progressing in their careers. And empathy is a key ingredient to great people skills.

It’s also a skill that can be used in every aspect of life to build richness of relationships and understanding and communication.

A skill for the future

In addition, it something that it going to be more necessary in the future.

This article on the five skills that everyone will need for jobs of the future lists empathy as one of the top five:

“All we know about the new skills economy for sure is that change is going to be a constant. Empathy will be the key to navigating this landscape, and first understanding the biases, opinions and experiences that shape your own worldview. This can then be applied to putting yourself into other people’s situations. As humans, we’ll need a higher caring IQ to better understand the complexities of daily life, build lasting relationships, gain a more diverse perspective, influence others and care for ourselves and those around us.”

How to build empathy if it doesn’t come naturally

Empathy isn’t something that comes naturally or easily to everyone. However, it can be learnt.

Mindtools has these tips for learning how to be more empathetic:

  • See things from the other person’s perspective. What is driving their behaviour, their thinking?
  • Validate their view (that might be different to your own). Note .. this does NOT mean agreeing with it. But it does mean acknowledging to the other person that you’ve heard them and you understand where they are coming from.
  • Think about why you hold the attitude or view that you do. Is it about winning? Is it about being right? Does it come from some fundamental value or strongly held belief? What is the impact of the holding on to that view to the exclusion of even hearing another view? What is the impact of holding onto that in terms of building relationships? Remember that holding on to your own view to the exclusion of even hearing any other view means that genuine communication becomes so much less effective.
  • Listen. To the whole message. Listen with your:
    • Ears– what is being said, and what tone is being used?
    • Eyes – what is the person doing with his or her body while speaking?
    • Instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important?
    • Heart – what do you think the other person feels?
  • Build a connection. Once you think you understand what the other person is feeling – think about whether you have ever been in a similar or comparable position. How did that feel?
  • Ask what the other person would do. When in doubt, ask the person to explain his or her position. This is probably the simplest, and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it’s probably the least used way to develop empathy.


  • Seek first to understand. Sometimes things are not as they seem.
  • If empathy isn’t something that comes naturally, consider what that might be costing you in relationships, effective communication and progress in your career.
  • Watch: Empathy by Brene Brown
  • Read: Three Types of Empathy

What’s next?

If the above has whetted your appetite, and you’re keen for more.. Here are some ideas:

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