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Leadership Toolbox: getting to grips with empathy

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In my first Leadership Toolbox post, I talked about the importance of self-care for leaders. Self-care involves turning our attention inward, to manage our own wellbeing.

In this post, I’ll be talking about the tool of empathy, which helps us turn our attention outward, to understand and connect with those around us. In a future post, I’ll share tips for how to increase your levels of empathy, and how to apply empathy “in the wild”, to grow your relationships and increase your effectiveness as a communicator and leader.

What is empathy?

The word “empathy” comes to us from Greek via German, meaning “feeling in”. We often define it in English as “feeling with”. We identify the thoughts and feelings of another person and respond appropriately.

Empathy ≠ sympathy

Sympathy is not the same as empathy. Sympathy involves pity, commiseration or sorrow for someone, without feeling what it is like to be them. Brené Brown gives a fantastic summary of the differences in this video.

The empathy-apathy continuum

The opposite of empathy is apathy – a lack of interest, feeling or concern. When we are apathetic, we don’t consider what others are thinking or feeling, and in some instances, we don’t even care what we ourselves are thinking or feeling.

Empathy and apathy exist on a continuum. It’s completely natural to move up and down the continuum during the day, even during a single interaction. We shouldn’t aim to remain at the empathy end all the time – that would be exhausting and will lead to burnout. Instead, we want to find an appropriate spot on the continuum for each interaction, and make sure we practise good self-care on a regular basis, to restore our energy and capacity for empathy.

Why is it important?

Empathy is a key part of our nature as a social species. It helps us:

  • build and maintain trusting relationships
  • connect with those around us
  • anticipate other people’s reactions
  • communicate effectively
  • feel heard and understood
  • offer and receive support

Sometimes it’s easier to identify by what it feels like when it is missing. Can you recall a time when you were experiencing a strong emotion (happy, sad, angry, excited, frustrated etc.), and the person you were talking to completely ignored what was going on for you? What was that like? It’s unlikely that you felt understood, supported by, and connected to that person.

When we experience a deep sense of connection with another person, feeling like they have really heard and understood us, it is incredibly affirming. While these sorts of interactions might be rarer than we would like, the great news is that empathy is a set of skills that anyone can learn to use more effectively. And the more we practise empathy, the more naturally it will come to us when we need it.

Four qualities of empathy

According to Brené Brown, the four qualities of empathy are to:

  1. be able to see the world as others see it
  2. be nonjudgmental
  3. understand another’s feelings
  4. communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Note: we don’t have to 100% agree with what the other person sees and feels, nor must we have experienced exactly what they have experienced. Instead, we use our minds to imagine what the world looks like from another’s perspective, and memories of our experiences of similar feelings, to “put ourselves in their shoes”.

Three types of empathy

Empathy can be broken down into three different types: cognitive, emotional and compassionate.


The first kind of empathy is cognitive empathy, involving our logical and rational thinking processes. We consider what we know about the other person, and we monitor their words, behaviours and reactions. Daniel Goleman refers to this as “perspective-taking”; we are trying to see things through another’s eyes.

Diagram of the three types of empathy. Two overlapping circles, the top labelled "emotional", the bottom labelled "cognitive" and the overlapping area labelled "compassionate"

This helps us be great communicators. We take account of the other person’s concerns, beliefs, and responses, and tailor the delivery of our message to suit the other person.


The second kind of empathy is emotional empathy. We “feel with” the other person, whether joy, sadness, frustration, delight, anger etc. We aren’t enmeshing our emotions with theirs or trying to change how they feel. Rather, we acknowledge what they are feeling, remembering what it is like to experience this way ourselves, and actually feel the same emotions, thanks to a unique aspect of our brain design.

Our brains have a particular type of cell called a mirror neuron. Mirror neurons synchronise our body, feelings, and behaviours with those of another person. Have you ever cringed when someone stubbed their toe, felt yourself getting “wound up” while a friend tells you about being treated harshly, or been moved to tears by someone else’s sadness? That’s your mirror neurons at work. We can “catch” feelings from people around us through the activity of mirror neurons.


This type of empathy combines the first two and moves us toward action. We understand the perspective of the other person, feel with them, and want to do something about it. When we feel this type of empathy, we give to charity, offer a cup of tea or a hug to someone in distress, or cook a meal for someone who is unwell or grieving.

When should I use empathy?

I believe that there is no such thing as the wrong time to use empathy. But that doesn’t mean that you let people get away with inappropriate or harmful behaviour. It’s vital to establish and maintain effective boundaries. I’ll be writing more about boundaries in a future post, but if you want to know more right now, check out the link in the Links section at the end of this post.

Being able to engage empathetically can help you:

  • establish relationships with people you have just met
  • deepen existing relationships
  • develop a team
  • work with customers
  • manage your manager
  • communicate authentically with family, friends, colleagues and strangers

I’m sold on empathy – now what?

In a future post, I’ll talk about how we can develop and effectively use our empathy skills. In the meantime, pay attention during the conversations you have, with friends, loved ones, customers, strangers, and ask yourself some questions:

  • How do you feel during and after each interaction?
  • Did you feel like you grew closer to or further apart from the other person, or stayed about the same?
  • How does the other person seem to feel?
  • Did the way you or the other person feel seem to change during the conversation?
  • If so, what was going on when that happened?

Reflecting on our interactions like this is a great way to raise our self-awareness, and awareness of other people’s emotional states. This is one of the first steps in developing Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and highly-learnable set of skills which make us more effective communicators and leaders.


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