Empathy: Leading From the Inside of Another’s World

By Dan Brown, PCC

In a recent meeting with a new client to debrief her 360 results, I heard for about the hundredth time a leader say something to the effect of, “I just don’t do chit-chat. I know I should show more interest in my direct reports. Like asking, ‘How was your weekend? How are the kids?’ But I don’t. To be honest, I’m not really that interested and I don’t expect they’re that interested personally in me.”

Now, before you jump all over this leader, remember this: she echoes the sentiment of many leaders whose 360 results point to a lack of empathy. Research on emotional intelligence is clear that empathy is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness. But when asked to define empathy, most leaders demonstrate a superficial understanding. It’s not surprising they at first seek to improve themselves superficially, too, by supposing that inquiring about a co-worker’s weekend will make any real difference.

“What if it’s possible you could develop deeper empathy without engaging in chit-chat?” I asked my client. A truly appealing concept, particularly for introverts. She looked curious, so we continued to unpack empathy. A quick Google search surprised us both to find that the term Empathy was introduced into the language rather recently, in 1909. British psychologist Edward Titchener invented the term as a translation from the German Einfuhlung – “to project yourself into what you observe.” The famous therapist Carl Rogers defined this projection as “entering the private, perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it.” It results in you having an accurate understanding of those you lead as seen from their inside world.

That doesn’t sound like idle chit-chat, does it? (Which, by the way, I’m not against as a way of rapport building. It’s just that it has little to do with empathy.)

What does it mean to project yourself into another’s world, and do so as a leader without comprising your own boundaries and objectivity? Walking in another person’s shoes tells us something, but not enough of what’s required and what mastery of empathy involves. Turns out that empathy divides itself into three, ever-deepening levels, according to best-selling author of “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman. The first is the brainy level: most adults are intellectually capable to some degree of taking another’s perspective and getting their mental state. Not within easy reach for many of us is the second level: the ability to resonate with another person’s emotions, to feel their joy, sadness, fear and frustration in ourselves, much as a tuning fork vibrates when another nearby is struck. Only when we can resonate emotionally is third-level empathy possible: feeling moved out of compassion to do something on another’s behalf.

Manipulators, narcissists and sociopaths who conjure the dark side of emotional intelligence are largely incapable of compassion. They’re harnessing level one, cognitive empathy, to exploit and hurt others. They can read facial expressions, but without feeling the other’s emotions.

Why empathy is critical to healthy management and leadership is this: without it, decision-making is severely handicapped. Even when you make an unpopular decision, others affected are a little more likely to go along, to accept it, when they know you considered their point of view and acknowledged the emotional impact of your adverse decision. Likewise, empathy sits at the heart of negotiation and conflict management, expressing itself as active listening. When leaders get dinged for not being good listeners, it’s a worrisome statement about their empathy.

The next question my client had was how do you cultivate and build empathy? Have a look at this list of practices, readings and videos. There is likely something here for you as you continue to develop:


  • Engage in volunteer work that exposes you to people different from you. Learn about them. How do they see the world? What’s important to them? What are their needs?
  • Prior to making a decision, approach those who will be affected by it. Get their input, to understand their needs and feelings. Try incorporating what you discover into the decision you make.
  • Discover your obstacles to being empathic. Are you so task- or achievement-oriented that you believe listening carefully to others is a time-consuming distraction from getting important work done? Challenge that assumption’s When is it not true? Gather evidence.
  • At the end of the day, note in a data log whether you were engaged appropriately at any level of empathy. Did you listen when someone approached you to express feelings, or did you feel too busy to talk about such things and brush the person off? Did you practice using open-end probes, such as, “Tell me more about that?” Did you understand underlying motivations for the other person’s behavior and adjust your response accordingly?



For more on empathy, see Dan’s amazing resource lists below, or contact him to discuss your own situation.



  • Awaking Compassion at Work, by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton. Great resource on the science of empathy, why it matters for leaders, and how to enact it competently.
  • How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: The Secret of Good Communication, by Larry King.
  • The Five Essential People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts, by Dale Carnegie.


  • Inside Out (2015) is a terrific, animated film in which five core human emotions are personified by characters in a family drama about a young child adjusting to the family’s relocation due to her father’s change of job. Excellent to learn how to read facial expressions and to learn how to identify and name one’s own experiences of joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust and how they drive your behavior.
  • The Last Samurai
  • Monsoon Wedding
  • What Women Want
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • TED Talks by Brene Brown on Empathy & Vulnerability. http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en
  • Cleveland Clinic Series on Empathy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDDWvj_q-o8
  • Listening: 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation, Celeste Headlee