Mastering Workplace Empathy: The Key to Effective Leadership

Mastering Workplace Empathy: The Key to Effective Leadership

A Conversation Between Doubting Dexter and Reassuring Ria


Doubting Dexter: If you show empathy for people at work you will become “soft”. You will not be able to take a tough stance when required.

Reassuring Ria: That is incorrect. Empathy only enables you to understand the other person better. It does not stop you from being assertive nevertheless.


Doubting Dexter: If you become empathetic, you will be more susceptible to being manipulated/ misled by those with different interests.

Reassuring Ria: It is the opposite. Being empathetic will help you understand their motives better. It will help you detect incongruent words and emotions.


Doubting Dexter: Understanding the emotions of others will bias you from making rational decisions.

Reassuring Ria: It is the opposite. You will be able to factor in the needs and interests of various stakeholders into the decision-making process, making it more effective.


Doubting Dexter: Empathy is a skill for only personal relationships, not professional ones.

Reassuring Ria: Not at all. Understanding the needs and wants of the other person in the professional realm gives you a great advantage in working with them more effectively.


Doubting Dexter: Okay… but you don’t need to learn skills of empathy. People will usually just tell you what they want.

Reassuring Ria: Not exactly. You need skills of empathy to accurately understand the other person’s needs without any communication gaps. It will even allow you to detect unexpressed needs and wants.



What is Empathy?


Empathy is the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person. It involves:

  1. First, seeing the other person’s situation from their perspective,
  2. And second, sharing their emotions.



Components of Empathy:


  • Staying out of judgement and listening.
  • Seeing things from their perspective or putting yourself in their shoes.
  • Recognizing emotion in another person.
  • Communicating that you recognize that emotion.

Empathy is not to be confused with Sympathy and Pity.


Sympathy is feeling care or concern for someone, accompanied by a wish to see them better off.


Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of another.


Empathy is “feeling with” the other person.
Does not involve sharing their perspective or feeling their emotion. Does not involve more than a conscious acknowledgement of the distress of the other.


Involves seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective and sharing their emotions.
Perceived as condescending.


Do not look down upon the other person.

How does empathy help in the workplace?


  • Empathetic people are more attuned to what others need or want.
  • This information gives them several advantages in interpersonal engagements at work. For example, it helps them:
    1. Anticipate and neutralize potential conflicts between stakeholders before they arise.
    2. Detect a problem a team member is facing and address it before it blows over.
    3. Better understand the needs of the customer/ client.
    4. Better understand the needs of their boss.
    5. Know what a win-win compromise would be in a negotiation.
    6. Better understand which candidate would be a better fit for a key leadership position in the organization.
    7. … And many more.


  • Empathy is crucial to performing in any profession that involves cooperating with people like sales, management, and leadership.
  • A lack of empathy translates into ignorance, and hence indifference to the needs, wants, pains, and frustrations of others.



Skills that enable empathy:

Listening Skills

Two fundamental Listening Skills are:


  1. Paraphrasingplaying back what the other person said using the same words they used.
  2. Summarizingplaying back the gist of what the other person said in a few concise sentences.


After paraphrasing/summarizing, check with the other person if you have understood them correctly. This allows them to clarify, thus ensuring you understand their perspective accurately.


How do they help:

  • Paraphrasing and Summarizing at certain opportune intervals shows the other person that you have truly been listening.
  • It ensures your understanding of their perspective is accurate.
  • It makes the other person feel heard and understood.




Probing is the skill of asking effective questions, i.e., “Narrow Open-Ended Questions”.


How does it help:

  • Asking questions shows that you have a genuine curiosity about what the other person is saying.
  • Probing serves several purposes in a conversation. It helps you probe for an aspect/angle you would like to know more about, clarify what they meant, clarify any contradictions you see, and many other purposes.



Empathetic Listening

  • Empathetic Listening is the skill of intuiting the other person’s feelings. This can be done by:
  1. Inferring their feelings by seeing things from their perspective. Accurately listening is necessary for this.
  2. Paying attention to their non-verbal cues like tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions gives you clues as to what they might be feeling.


  • State your intuitive pickup to the other person (i.e., name the emotion) and check with them if it is accurate. Ex – “I can see that you feel pretty anxious about the future of the XYZ project. Would that be fair to say?”
  • It is important to clarify your intuitive pickup with the other person to ensure you understand their emotions accurately.
  • If you assume what they feel without checking with them, it derails empathy.


How does it help:

  • Understanding people’s emotions gives you a deeper understanding of their needs and wants which cannot be achieved by just cognitively understanding their perspective.
  • It makes the other person feel deeply understood.




Self-awareness is a pre-condition to empathy.


What is Self-Awareness?


  • Self-awareness is paying attention to your own emotions, as well as your thoughts related to that emotion.
  • It being aware of your internal state from moment to moment, as a neutral observer, without reacting or judging yourself.



Why is Self-Awareness a necessary pre-condition to empathy?


  • If you cannot recognize emotions within yourself, it is impossible to recognize the same in another person.
  • The more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading the feelings of others.

To know more about emotional intelligence click here.

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