Three tips to improve your empathy skills

Photo credit - Tim Gouw via

Photo credit – Tim Gouw via

Empathy is a core competency of emotional intelligence and a desirable leadership skill. But is it in-built in humans or can we learn to be empathetic?

What is empathy?
Empathy is “the ability to read and understand other’s emotions, needs, and thoughts” (McKee, 2016). It is one of those skills that done well, makes some, good people people. Being good at empathy allows people to connect effectively with others. In a leader, it allows them to influence and inspire others to achieve their goals.

Having good empathy skills, makes us more effective at work. Being able to develop empathy would therefore be a good thing to do. Are people born with a talent for empathy? Aren’t some people just naturally good “people” people?

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.
~ Daniel H. Pink

Empathic people – born or made?
Studies in neuroscience suggest that our brains have mirror neurons that help people understand others’ experiences and feelings. If you walk into a situation and start to get a feeling for the mood in the room that’s because your mirror neurons are reflecting the feelings of the people present. As a result, you start feeling as they do. Your brain picks up clues about what is going on. What this means, is that we all have the capacity for empathy. It is just not always well-honed.

The good news is that you can develop your skills in empathy. Annie McKee suggests to do this takes “self-awareness, self-management, patience, endurance, and lots and lots of practice” (2016).

I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.
~ Maya Angelou

Here are three tips she proposes that increase your ability to pick up the clues your mirror neurons will use.

  1. Observe, listen, and ask questions
    Pay attention to people around you. Watch their body language. Observe with your ears. Listen. Suspend your own need to judge the situation. A curiosity mindset is valuable. Listen and ask questions of others. Seek to understand them before being understood yourself.
  2. Avoid distractions and try to be fully present when you are with people
    Being present with the people you are with is key to focusing on them. Life is full of distractions. So are workplaces. There is often something to deal with that will distract you from focusing on the needs of people around you. Distractions can lead to being reactive and/or defensive when interacting with others. This state of mind is the opposite of what is needed to build good relationships.
    Being present requires being self-aware. Start by noticing your own behaviour and where your attention goes, and bringing it back. Mindfulness practices are a way of developing your capacity for being present.
  3. Stop multi-tasking.
    McKee (2016) defines multi-tasking as, “doing more than one thing with less than your whole brain”. While many people pride themselves on their ability to do this, recent research suggests that multi-tasking is a misnomer. It means you are shifting your attention from one thing to another. That means there are gaps in your attention. When you do this while dealing with people it creates the impression that they are not getting the best of you.

These three tips sound easy enough to try. The real test comes in practising them all the time, not just when you have the presence of mind to do so. Therein lies the real practice.

McKee, Annie. 2016 If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To. Harvard Business Review. 16 November 2016.

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