empathy. What does it mean for a leader?

There is a lot of talk in the leadership world right now about the need for our leaders to demonstrate empathy. I couldn’t agree more. But I often get asked by the leaders I work with in the SME world – “what does that mean Sarah? And how do I do it?”


That is a great question.

I have seen empathy demonstrated in many ways, however there are 4 general themes in how people ‘do’ empathy without any training and it goes from one extreme to another.

The Avoiders:

Those who avoid empathy at all costs, don’t want to engage or know what is going on and will change the subject or completely avoid.

The Awkwards:

Those who start to feel uncomfortable, don’t know what to say or do but try and often come out with the ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’ statement.

The Naturals:

Those who just know what to do and say at the right time without much thought or effort.

The Story Stealers

Those who highjack the persons situation and start talking about their story and dismiss how the person is actually feeling and make it about themselves.

It is important to understand what empathy is. Essentially empathy is letting someone know that you hear them, that you understand and they are not alone. In other words, listen to where they are at, validate that it is perfectly ok to feel that way and then identify with the emotion – not the story.

We have all felt a wide range of emotions. For example someone may say to you that the boss dismissed their idea. They may express their feeling to this as rejection. To empathise we don’t have to have been rejected for our ideas, but I am sure most of us have felt a sense of rejection before. We also don’t have to feel the same if that happened to us. You may feel anger or a sense of “whatever” if your boss dismissed your idea. That’s why we don’t get caught in the story, we look at the emotion they are feeling. And most of the time we can connect to the emotion.

There are different types of empathy that have been defined by psychologists. These are cognitiveemotional and compassionate empathy.

1. Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and see their perspective.

It is a useful skill, particularly for leaders in a conflict resolution situation. It enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but without necessarily engaging with their emotions. It is a much more rational and logical process. Necessary at times, but does not connect fully with the emotion of what someone is experiencing and emotions aren’t always logical and rational.

2. Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is when you literally feel the other person’s emotions.

Emotional Empathy can be both Good and Bad

Emotional empathy is good because it means that we can readily understand and feel other people’s emotions.

Emotional empathy is bad, because it is possible to become overwhelmed by those emotions, and therefore unable to respond, this doesn’t help anyone and can be a slippery slope to becoming the story stealer.

Emotional empathy requires the listener to have strong self-regulation over their own emotions.

3. Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is recognising and feeling someone’s emotion, and taking action to help.

As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly don’t need you just to feel their pain or, worse, to burst into tears alongside them (emotional empathy).

Instead, they need you to listen, validate, understand and connect with what they are going through and, crucially, help them to take, action to resolve the problem.

As a leader you need to identify your natural approach to empathy. Are you an avoider, awkward, natural or the story stealer? Once you identify that, be aware of what type of empathy is appropriate for the unique situation. There is no one size fits all. Be adaptable and be tuned in to what that person needs at that time. Most importantly in every case – listen and validate the persons situation and emotions.