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Empathy as a Core Leadership Skill -- and Why It’s a Competitive Advantage for Post-Pandemic Success

While the global health pandemic continues to play out, one thing is clear: establishing and sustaining productive relationships is front-and-center as we move forward.

(See “How agility, empathy are at the heart of ‘The Big Reset’: Business leaders must embrace both for post-pandemic success.”)

You can’t land a new project, get a new job, or advance in your chosen field without empathy for others and for yourself.

A recent survey of 150 CEOs, Harvard Business Review noted, shows that more than 80% of these leaders recognized empathy as a key to success.

Organizations that focus on empathy benefit too: “Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments,” the report said.

This all means that practicing empathy requires a level of intentionality.

Yes, some of us are naturals at it, and others of us need to work on it more actively. Being good at establishing and sustaining relationships calls for a mix of being people-savvy, being self-aware, and using good communication skills.

First, let’s dive into what empathy is (and is not). Six Seconds notes, empathy is very different from sympathy.

“While they are often used interchangeably, there are crucial differences that lead to very different outcomes. Polar opposite outcomes, actually. According to social psychologist and bestselling author Brené Brown: ‘Empathy fuels connection, and sympathy drives disconnection.’”

Psychological safety is essential for connection in relationships. It means ensuring people feel safe and secure in interactions with us wherever we are -- on the phone, on Zoom, in person. It’s about treating others with the same dignity and respect we expect ourselves.

I define empathy as having three dimensions…

  1. Seeing: Being able to “see” or recognize the experiences of a fellow human being, and accepting it as valid for them. This is often called “Walking a mile in their shoes.”

  2. Listening: Listening versus “hearing” as a show of respect for the feelings or emotions that a fellow human being might have as a result of their experiences.

  3. Acknowledging: Acknowledging the person’s feelings or emotions as authentic for them in a respectful way. This involves using skills of empathetic listening, versus what’s known as pseudo-listening or other kinds of listening.

Six Seconds has several excellent resources for increasing empathy. Here are a few tips and strategies to start:

  • Set aside your assumptions and invite in curiosity. Switch from judging the other person and ask respectful questions that help you to understand their experiences, perspectives, viewpoints, ideas, or goals.

  • Spend time in nature. Yes, an increasing number of studies show that more time in nature is related to developing higher levels of empathy. See more here.

  • Widen your circle to include more diversity. “Empathy, especially for strangers, starts with exposure to people who are different than us,” Six Seconds notes. “Research has found that contact with people of different races increases our empathy toward them at a neurological level. So if you want to increase your empathy, widen your circle.”

  • Take time to acknowledge the privileges you have, and put them to use on behalf of groups who don’t have them. See this guide for building empathy from a recent New York Times article.

Bonus: “How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You,” from the Harvard Business Review

Can we help with advancing the empathy skills of senior executives in your organization? Reach out to Beth Offenbacker, Ph.D., at or via phone or text at 703-623-4811 to discuss if our Executive/Leadership Coaching or Talent Management services are right for you. We work with organizations of all sizes and types whose missions focus on sustainable objectives. All services are customized to your needs.

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