Is empathy important?

That’s the question with which my client – let’s call him Andy – opened a recent session.

‘Is empathy important? I’ve got a guy in my department who is technically brilliant at his job. I also have a vacancy for a team leader. On paper, this guy’s the obvious choice. However, he never seems very empathetic. I guess the fact I’m even asking you the question means that I do think it’s important,’ he explained.

‘How would you describe someone who is empathetic?’ I asked.

‘They listen and make sure that they understand your perspective. They don’t just sympathise with you but they make you feel heard. They can’t always change things to be the way you want them to be but they can acknowledge that you feel like that. They are open about issues that they may have.’

‘And why might all that be important in a work context?’

‘I think it builds trust. You feel more comfortable being open with someone who really listens to you and is willing to share their experiences with you. An empathetic boss is great at holding a team together because they’re aware of the motivations and challenges of the team members. It spreads a culture of empathy within the team and that means that conflict is less likely and more easily nipped in the bud. If we practise empathy with each other, that could help us be more empathetic towards our users and customers and then produce better products which ultimately is good for business.’

Research professor of psychiatry, Mohammadreza Hojat, believes that empathy can be taught. “Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait.” In that case, we can strengthen our empathetic ability. Andy and I discussed this and came up with the following ideas for exercising our empathy:

Five ways in which we can strengthen our empathetic ability

Be curious

If someone holds a different opinion to you, don’t just decide that you’re simply never going to get on: find out more. Ask them to explain how they have arrived at that opinion. They may widen your view of a situation. Be prepared to change your mind!

Be attentive 

Listen wholeheartedly. If you don’t have time for an undistracted conversation, say so and arrange a time to talk. If you’d like some ideas on how to be a more effective listener, try out the SIER technique in my post ‘Are you all ears?’.

Be open

Empathy isn’t just about listening – it’s about talking too. Opening up about your own situation can help to build rapport, understanding and trust.

Be prepared to walk in another person’s shoes

We hear of method actors who chose to stay in character whilst making a film, even going to extremes at times. In a work context, you may choose to go and spend a couple of days shadowing another team to discover how you can improve your working relationship with them. In Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Atticus Finch says to his daughter:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Be aware

The word ’empathy’ literally means being ‘in feeling’ with someone: that requires you to be aware of how you are feeling. Being emotionally aware can sometimes be tricky – if that’s the case for you, an emotional body scan can help. As your understanding of your own emotional state grows, so will your ability to identify the emotions felt by others.

In a commencement address at Northwestern in 2006, Barak Obama said that empathy is a quality of character that can change the world. If that’s true, then empathy can change the team you work in, your friendships, even the conversation you have with your family over the dinner table.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: could you do with strengthening your empathetic ability?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’re ready to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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