8 Key Skills of Empathy

by Jesse Lahey on May 13, 2015

Male and female thinking together on th blackboard background

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines who think. ~Richard Restak, George Washington University neurology professor

As leaders, we need to make emotional connections with our target audience if we hope to influence their thoughts and actions. One very important way to connect positively with people is with what I call powerful empathy.

Juan was planning to present recommendations to his CEO and two other senior leaders about the company’s medical benefits program. He had invited three people (two of whom were external consultants) to help make the presentation. While having multiple advisors can be wise, I was concerned that Juan would appear weak by needing so many advisors for the presentation. Also, too many voices would make it difficult to achieve the meeting’s objectives in the allotted time.

Rather than simply pointing out the danger of inviting all three advisors, I asked him to help me understand the thinking behind his meeting plans. Why did he want to include each person? How would each one help him achieve his objectives? When he was able to completely express his thoughts, and I was able to fully understand his thoughts and feelings, it was easy to reach the mutual decision to bring only one advisor – the program’s medical director.

Understanding the thoughts and feelings of another person may sound tough if you don’t consider yourself an empathetic person.

The good news is that empathy doesn’t have to be something you’re born with. It involves skills that you can develop through intentionality and practice.

Here are eight key empathy skills you can practice to improve your ability to connect with others:

  • Curiosity: Take the time to be curious about what other people think. Try to fully understand their point of view.
  • Authentic Listening: Most people don’t truly listen. Stop planning what you are going to say, and focus on really hearing their thoughts and feelings.
  • Repeating and Paraphrasing: Try to tell them what you heard them say, in your own words, so they can correct any misinterpretation or confirm that you heard them correctly.
  • Imagination: Think about what it would be like to be in their shoes. What if you woke up one morning and found you had switched places in life with them?
  • Open-Mindedness: Allow yourself to be influenced by their thoughts and feelings. Almost no one does this, but it is key if you want to inspire people to be open to your own influence.
  • Vulnerability: Respectfully share your reactions and feelings about what the other person is saying, with the intent to confirm that you are fully understanding them.
  • Self-Awareness: Understand how your emotions or feelings may be affecting your thoughts and reactions.
  • Sensitivity to Others’ Emotions: Develop your “emotional radar” to pick up on what people are feeling by watching their body language and facial expressions, and listening not only to their words, but to any “between the lines” meaning in the event they are not being direct and transparent.

While some of these empathy skills may not come naturally to you, the more you practice the better you will become – and the more easily you will be able to connect with and influence people.

Other resources about powerful empathy:

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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