the art of active listening
The Art Of Active Listening
August 12, 2019
First Steps In Leadership
September 3, 2019

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

During my studies, I’ve often come across the topic of Empathy as I’ve always been drawn to studying emotional intelligence (EI) in leadership. I think most of my leadership essays involved the topic of EI in some way.

I’m fascinated by the impact that emotional intelligence has on our leadership effectiveness. Once I’ve become more self-aware, more self-regulated, more empathic and more relationally active, I’ve seen a massive change in my communication, conflict management, motivation, and delegation skills, etc.

Today I will focus on Empathy, the skill to relate to and connect with others. The word Empathy is only a recent addition to the English dictionary and is often confused with sympathy, which was added in the late 16th century.

Empathy comes from the Greek word Empatheia, which means ‘in-feeling’.

Sympathy comes from the Greek word Sumpatheia, which means ‘with-feeling’.

While both are appropriate at times, Empathy is considered to be more powerful than sympathy.

Sympathy acknowledges the pain and feels bad for you; Empathy feels it with you.

Sympathy sends a greeting card; Empathy sits with you.

In a study of cancer patients, sympathy was considered as a rather pitiful response from people that seemed to lack understanding.

Empathy, on the other hand, was described as “an affective response that acknowledges and attempts to understand an individual’s suffering through emotional resonance” (imagining to walk in their shoes). (

According to Paul Ekman, as mentioned by Daniel Goleman, there are three types of Empathy.

  1. Cognitive Empathyknowing how someone feels and what they might be thinking. It’s also called perspective-taking, which helps to motivate people to give their best.

    Whether we know how someone feels depends on how well we know them and/or if we have experienced what they’re going through.

    However, it is important not always to assume what people feel. It is worth asking when appropriate. While one person might only be disappointed when they did not get the promotion, another might be devastated.

    Knowing where your people are at makes a big difference to your leadership.
  2. Emotional Empathyfeeling what someone feels and understanding what goes on in their inner emotional world.

    This might sound very ‘touchy-feely’ but emotional Empathy is what connects you with your people.

    In order to feel what others feel, we first need to be connected to our own emotions.

    Unfortunately, showing our feelings has been underappreciated in leadership. But feelings are part of our human nature.

    If we are not in touch with our feelings, we miss out on truly connecting with others.

    This does not mean we should wear our heart on our sleeves, that is surely inappropriate.

    Coming back to my topic from last week, active listening plays an essential role in Empathy.

    Most often, we actually don’t have to say much, just be there and listen, which is harder than it sounds. As leaders, we want to solve problems, get things done and move forward.

    However, in moments of both grief and joy, it can be powerful when we as leaders take the time to sit and listen or dance and celebrate.

    One of my previous bosses was actually better at hearing his staff out when they are sad. When there was something to celebrate, he would cut it short and make sure we get back to work.
  3. Compassionate Empathy – not only knowing and feeling what someone feels but also being moved to action when needed.

    Taking the time to sit and listen or celebrate is one way to show our Empathy. Giving our staff time off, sending flowers or organising a cake are other ways to show that we feel with them.

    When I went through a divorce many years ago, I was still a trainee to become a regional area manager. Since it was almost the time to get my own area, I asked my boss in which region I should look for an apartment.

    He immediately knew that my marriage must have ended. He did not ask any annoying questions, just asked if I was ok, and told me that he’d get back to me regarding my area within the next few days.

    Sometimes, Empathy can look like that scenario with my boss. That’s why knowing our people is crucial for effective leadership.

    Less can be more. I have found that saying the wrong things is worse than saying nothing.

Figure 1 Three Types of Empathy

Do’s and Don’ts

While this might come naturally to you, evaluate how well you do Empathy, whether in sad or joyful moments in your team.


  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Imagine their perspective
  • Think what’s appropriate to ask or to say
  • Take time to sit and listen if needed


  • Judge or blame them
  • Try to solve their problems for them
  • Pity them
  • Draw the attention to yourself completely

If this has been helpful for you, please comment, share, like.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Happy Tuesday! (or as always, whatever day you’re reading this)


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