Office of Culture and Experience

Empathy is Essential

October 26, 2016 • Coaching, Leadership, OPD

As a leader, the ability to build empathy with others is essential to leading effectively. Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science Of Human Relationships:

“In today’s psychology, the word ‘empathy’ is used in three distinct senses: knowing another person’s feelings; feeling what that person feels: and responding compassionately to another’s distress. These three varieties of empathy seem to describe a 1-2-3 sequence; I notice you, I feel with you, and so I act to help you” (Goleman, 2007).

A leader’s job is to get results, and you accomplish this by influencing your team members to accomplish something, by inspiring them to take action. To influence and inspire your team to go above and beyond mediocrity, leaders must be able to understand them. This takes building empathy with them.

There are three ways you can build empathy:


  • Schedule time to talk to your team members about their experiences.
  • Ask them how they feel and what they notice.
  • Do field “intercepts” where you have impromptu encounters with them in the workplace and learn about what they have been doing. This can also be accomplish through in the moment coaching.

Engaging with people directly reveals their values and what they think. This leads to better understanding of them, which will give insights on how to positively influence them in the future.


  • Observe one team member, or your whole group.
  • Seek to understand each person in the context of their jobs.
  • Put yourself in a position see what they go through and feel in the performance of their duties.

Observation gives you clues about what your team members think and feel. It will also allow you to understand their jobs and give you insights on how develop them to be more effective.


  • Immerse yourself in the same experiences as your team members
  • Experience ‘a day in the life’ of your team members

Immersion will allow you to learn and implement new practices that will improve the overall performance of your department.


By starting with empathy and establishing a deep understanding of your team members, you, as a leader, can really “know” your people, inspire them to take action as a team, and reach new levels of performance. Outside of leading team members in the workplace, leaders have a role in their development. There are several tools available in the leader tool kit, and coaching is one of them. To properly coach team members, leaders have to build empathy. It is the moderator in the coaching relationship. Specifically, empathy supports the competencies of relating, questioning, listening, and contributing during the coaching conversation. Coaching can help you build deeper empathy with, and understanding of, your team members’ perspectives on events and departmental activities.  The use of the listening and questioning competencies can help team members reframe situations in ways that introduce new perspectives and more awareness during a coaching conversation.

Practicing the three ways to build empathy with your team members—engage, observe, and immerse— gives you a better understanding of team members’ experiences and provides insights to improve your department’s performance. This will also help you become a better coach and leader-developer by better understanding each person’s developmental needs.

For more on empathy, check out our previous blog: Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

-Jonathan Silk

Coaching Corner:

Empathy also ties into the International Coach Federation (ICF) core competencies. Using empathy helps the coach to establish a trusting relationship (#3), activates active listening (#5), and assists with designing powerful questions (#6) as you seek to create understanding on a deeper level.



Goleman, D. (2007). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York, NY: Bantam Dell

International Coach Federation. (N.D.). Core Competencies. Retrieved from