For Leaders: Sixteen Ways of Developing Empathy

Empathy, one of the competencies of emotional intelligence, is defined as the ability to be aware of, to understand and to appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. We expect family and friends to empathize as they listen to us. We pay therapists to skillfully listen with empathy. What should we expect of our leaders?

As a quality of leadership, empathy is critical to success. Empathy may, indeed, prove to be the most significant skill of leadership. Try this experiment:

Think about the leader you most admire. Describe what you admire about him or her. Does the following description fit that individual?

People for whom empathy is a strength will generally interact well with others one-on-one, and they also work effectively in cooperative efforts. They will probably avoid hurting others’ feelings.

And does the following describe those leaders whom you do not so much admire?

People who are low in empathy often have difficulty understanding what others are feeling and thinking, and in giving due consideration to those feelings and thoughts. As a result, these leaders are often involved in misunderstandings and strained relationships.

Of course most leaders probably fall somewhere in the middle of the curve in their ability to empathize. But what is it that makes some more willing than others to “walk in another’s moccasins” and allow the feelings and thoughts of others to affect them and the decisions they make? Why do some leaders tend toward empathy, toward understanding others’ feelings and acting in a way that takes those feelings into account? Why do other leaders tend to be oblivious to what others are feeling and thinking? The answers to these questions are not simple, and both nature and nurture surely play a role. In developing as a leader, it is more important for you to know that empathy, like other emotional intelligence competencies, can be learned.

Typically, if you are a generally emotionally stable person, your empathy has been increasing as you have grown older. If you reflect on your life, you will probably realize that your experiences, whether in “real life” or in reading about others, of new situations and of people who are different than you-in age, in gender, in skin color, in ability, in sexual orientation, in religious beliefs, in nationality-have increased your store of empathy. Once you can put an individual human face on one of these “differences,” your empathy expands.

But there is more you can actually choose to do, actions you can take to increase your empathy and your ability to connect with colleagues, with bosses, and with those you supervise. Working with a coach, attending workshops, or doing some reading on your own are all ways to increase your own empathy. Here is a brief list of possibilities:

  • Make a habit of expressing your appreciation of others every day
  • Ask yourself, “What is this person feeling?” especially in those sticky situations
  • Be true to your promises to others
  • Become aware of the impact you have on others (keep a log!)
  • Identify and support a project that provides service to others who are in need
  • Learn to listen by reflecting thoughts and feelings back to others
  • Read widely to include perspectives of others who live or have lived lives very different from yours
  • Ask gentle questions: What can I do for you? What do you need?
  • Become an observer of how people express their feelings-including body language and other non-verbal communication
  • Build a work culture that is emotionally safe and friendly
  • Ask for feedback about your behavior, decisions, and words (perhaps through a 360 degree feedback instrument)
  • Attempt to see a tough situation from another’s perspective
  • Develop a sincere interest in other people by asking yourself what they have to teach you
  • Be willing to share your passions and interests with others
  • Don’t be afraid to express what you think, what you feel, what you need
  • Take an Emotional Intelligence assessment to learn more about your own ability to empathize

Article written by Dr. Barbara Kerr