How to Express Empathy Like a Leader

You can’t lead until you connect with people.

Empathy is the channel of connection.

How to express empathy like a leader:

#1. Verbalize the emotion of others:

Empathy acknowledges emotion. Acknowledgement isn’t agreement.

“It seems like you feel discouraged.”

I recently led a team in an empathy exercise. First, I told them I was intimidated by a future opportunity. I asked them to tell me how I was feeling.

Empathy made me feel surprisingly optimistic and strong. They didn’t offer solutions. They verbalized my emotion.

People rise after they feel understood.

#2. Empathy applies to bright and dark emotion.

Don’t reserve empathy for sadness. Connect by celebrating-with.

“You must feel thrilled to have this opportunity.”

Tip: Notice positive emotion when progress needs to continue.

#3. Focus on others.

Keep “you” in your language. You might say, “I think you must feel overwhelmed.” Try saying, “YOU must feel overwhelmed.”

“I” moves conversations away from others. “You” keeps others front and center.

There’s a place to say, “I know how you feel.” Or, “I’ve been through something like this.” But use “I” sparingly.

#4. Seek affirmation of your understanding.

  1. Am I understanding you?
  2. Do you think I get what’s going on for you?
  3. Am I getting how you’re feeling?

If you’re on target, connection is strengthened. Hearts open.

When you misunderstand, adapt.

Empathy says, “It seems like you’re worried about missing your target. Am I understanding you?” They say, “No. Really I’m angry that my target was set too high.”

“Ah. I hear you. You’re angry that your target was set too high.”

#5. Answer emotion before offering answers.

The rush to fix people results in frustration, resistance, and discouragement.

Ears remain closed until people feel understood.

Influence requires a willing heart. Hearts open AFTER people feel understood.

What prevents leaders from expressing empathy?

What suggestions do you have for expressing empathy like a leader?

Bonus material:

Empathy Protects you from being a Jerkhole (LF)

5 Reasons Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill (FC)

Empathy in the Workplace (CCL)

How to Become a more Empathetic Leader (Northeastern)