Empathy That Works

Guest post by Margo Gouley, PhD, Vice President, Program Design 

Empathy is the leadership buzzword of 2021. According to the latest McKinsey Global Survey on reskilling, the number of companies investing in empathy and interpersonal skills training doubled in 2020. In 2021, Forbes declared empathy the most important skill for leaders to possess and develop. But if you search the term online or in management research, you’ll find many different definitions and very little clarity about what it looks like in practice. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that empathy is about “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” or following the golden rule of treating others the way we would like to be treated. While this is true to an extent, leaders who think about empathy in this way run the risk of centering themselves at the expense of the very people they are trying to support.  The most inclusive and effective leaders take themselves out of centre stage and spotlight the needs and concerns of others. 


Here are 3 ways to do empathy right. 


Recognize differences as well as similarities

We often confuse empathy with sympathy. When we sympathize, we see something in the feelings or experiences of others that we have felt or experienced ourselves. Sympathy is thinking “I know how you feel. I’ve been there.” Empathy is a bit more complicated. In addition to seeing a similarity, empathy sees a difference. Empathy is thinking “I care about how you feel, even if I’ve never been there.” The most inclusive and effective leaders know that their experience of work or the world isn’t the only experience. This doesn’t mean that empathy is futile. While we might not be able to understand everything about people whose lives are different than our own, we can always demonstrate that we care by acknowledging this difference. 

To put this mindset into practice, you need to begin with self-reflection. Take stock of the experiences that have coloured your own perspective, and compare them to what others report they are experiencing. For example, if someone on your team has mentioned that they feel a certain way, ask yourself “have I ever felt that way on this team before? Have I had an experience anywhere else that has left me feeling that way?” As you think of your answers to these questions, notice where your experiences are similar and where they are different. Dig into the differences in your conversations to demonstrate your empathy.


Ask more questions

Questions are a simple and effective way to demonstrate empathy, but we sometimes forget or are hesitant to ask them.  Many leaders are under so much pressure to make decisions quickly that it can feel like there simply isn’t time. But if we want to practice empathy, we must make time. Asking questions shows others that you believe you can learn from what they have to say. Try adopting the rule of 3: in meetings, ask for at least 3 opinions before you provide your own, and when you’re decision-making, reach out to at least 3 people for their opinion before you form yours

Leaders who are hesitant to use questions as part of their empathy skillset are usually worried about being too invasive or making those they lead uncomfortable. To avoid doing so, use open-ended questions when you’re asking someone about their experience, such as “what has your experience been?” or “could you tell me more about your time on that team?” rather than pointed questions such as “have you experienced X or y?”. 


Learn to listen

Most of us know how important listening is to practicing empathy, but most of us also think we're better at it than we actually are. Luckily, anyone can learn to listen more empathically. Start simple by practicing listening without interrupting. Don’t speak over people, don’t finish their sentences, and get comfortable with silence as they formulate their thoughts. It might feel like you’re helping someone express their idea when you complete their thought, but what you’re actually communicating is “I already know what you’re going to say.” Giving others time to express their thoughts shows that you believe their thoughts are valuable and unique.

Take this practice a step further by actively seeking out people to listen to. Who on your team might have a radically different perspective than you? You need to hear that perspective! Seek it out and listen to it. Finally, do a mini self-assessment of the people whose opinions you value. Who makes the list? How much diversity exists on that list? Are you listening broadly or are you in an echo chamber of people just like you? 


Focusing on seeing and valuing differences, asking the right questions, and listening inclusively can be game-changers for leaders. Practicing empathy in these ways will help you ensure others feel safe, valued, and respected.

Recent Articles

Know when to jettison these six types of workplace jargon

Bart Egnal, chief executive officer of leadership communications consultancy the Humphrey Group,...

What to say when you're stuck in the elevator with your boss's boss

I was alone in the office elevator. Then the doors flew open, and in walked our CEO. It was...

R-e-s-p-e-c-t: 4 ways to show savvy manners when speaking off the cuff

Daniel Craig, the 47-year-old actor who's portrayed James Bond for nearly a decade, had just...