Practical Empathy

Practical Empathy

By Jim Davis Ed.M., MA

Practical Empathy

Empathy is essential to strong leadership. It is similar to “perspective-taking” and has become nearly synonymous with “care”. A leader who lacks empathy, it is suggested, cannot lead well… at least not for long (McKee et al, 2017; Reiss, 2017).

But empathy is hard! How can a leader fully understand the experience or feelings of another? We have all experienced moments where our heart goes out to someone – you have felt this if you’ve ever watched the videos of military parents coming home from service to surprise their child. But when the “feeling” isn’t immediately obvious, empathy takes work. The leader must intentionally attempt to take the perspective of another. They will have to picture themself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what that would be like. Often, empathy is a construction.

The leader must collect contextual information from the person they hope to lead, imagine themselves in that same position, and draw perspective from that mental construction. The exercise is necessary, but inherently limited.

Where one person might return from a 5-mile jog feeling invigorated, another (who is trying to be empathetic) might imagine themselves in the same setting and feel exhausted at the very thought of running 5 miles.

Therefore, they must ask questions. “How does running 5 miles make you feel?” Empathy is inherently tied to curiosity. Imagine the same situation applied to board meetings, commutes, or performance reviews.  

 If a leader aims to develop the “ability to feel or imagine another person’s emotional experience” (McDonald & Messinger, 2011), they should be prepared to put in the work.

Practicing Empathy

Putting empathy into practice is an intentional pursuit. When people are not on the same page within an organization there is often a lack of empathy, of shared understanding, coming from both directions. Before concerns bubble over, try this three-step process:

  1. Slow Down and Ask Questions
  2. Assess, Don’t Judge
  3. Construct a Shared Understanding

Empathy is more difficult at speed. When the workday is moving fast and frustrations are mounting, take a moment to slow down. Emotion regulation is another key workplace capacity – in the pursuit of practical empathy, it is often the first step. So take a breath. Then ask questions.

 What are you feeling? and How would you name our current dilemma? are solid starter questions, assuming they are authentic. A leader might even begin with the preface, I’d like to understand more about your experience. Slow down and make it clear that the conversation is shifting to the pursuit of mutual understanding. Then ask enough questions to get to that place.

Be genuinely curious and take care not to judge. A leader can (and should) be in a near-constant state of assessment, but personal value judgments can limit their ability to truly hear. Genuine curiosity demands sincere interest. Only ask the question if you’re genuinely interested in the answer.

 And don’t prematurely judge. Too often, we impose judgements based on our personal value system, neglecting the obvious idea that all values are not shared. Until each party has the opportunity to voice their values and intentions, to get clear on what they’re after, judgement is just a burden.

 Here’s a real world example: two friends are in the kitchen baking. Friend A adds a cup of brown sugar to a dough mix. Friend B shouts, what are you doing?! Friend A notes that the recipe calls for a cup of brown sugar. Friend B insists that the recipe calls for salt, not sugar. Friend B thinks that Friend A is foolish, impatient, and has blown the recipe.

 Assessment would have eased each of their frustrations (and yes, this story is inspired by a real-world experience). The friends were making a full meal; Friend A thought they were making desert in that moment, while Friend B thought they were starting with the dinner rolls. They would ultimately make both dishes, but made different assumptions about their order of operation. Judgement, in this case, was premature. What they needed was assessment, only then could they reach a place of shared understanding – only then could they successfully practice empathy.

 Two people working together, in the same situation, with slightly different perspectives. For Friend A to understand why Friend B is upset, they must first recognize their procedural misalignment. Otherwise, perspective-taking is limited. Empathy is limited.

Putting it into Practice

 Slow down, ask questions, assess (don’t judge), and align your understanding. Consider how this might unfold in the workplace.

 Two coworkers are on a call with a client, Employee A thinks that efficiency is paramount, but Employee B thinks that building a relationship is the priority. As the call rolls on, Employee A becomes frustrated by Employee B for going off-topic to discuss the client’s weekend; meanwhile, Employee B becomes frustrated by Employee A for abruptly cutting off tangential conversation and focusing solely on the work.

 Their workplace relationship frays when neither is able to have true empathy for the other. Employee A thinks that Employee B is being disrespectful, “how does she not see that she’s wasting so much time” – fair enough, but she is taking perspective, practicing empathy, from her own specific angle. Until both people agree on the angle from which they will see and approach the problem, they cannot take the perspective of the other, or evaluate each other’s behavior.

 Neither is wrong. Neither is right. They need to understand each other better, forgive each other faster, and agree on a shared strategy. Workplace decisions that aim to be respectful and successful should incorporate both instinctive and intentional curiosity. These decisions should be influenced by assessment without judgement, in the presence of a pre-determined objective, and with a recognition of one’s own value bias.

 Which brings us to another key to empathy: culture. Develop a culture wherein people are free to ask questions of one another – a space where people have genuine interest in one another. That culture should be full of assessment, feedback, and pursuit of clarity, but free of premature judgement.

Empathy is essential to strong leadership. Strong cultures support empathy and the skills associated with it. These cultures do not happen on accident, they are created by leaders and upheld by daily interactions. Slow down. Ask quesions. Construct. Leaders, the work begins with you.


McDonald, N.M., & Messinger, D.S. (2011). The development of empathy: How, when, and why. University of Miami, Dept. of Psychology.

McKee, A., David, S., Chaskalson, M., & Chussil, M. (2017). If you can’t empathize with your employees, you’d better learn to. Harvard Business Review.

Riess H. (2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of patient experience4(2), 74–77. 

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