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How to develop your Emotional Intelligence Part 4: Empathy

This is part 4 of this EQ series. You can read the others here: Part 1 Self Awareness, Part 2 Self Regulation, Part 3 Motivation.

The fourth Emotional Intelligence skill is Empathy.

Having awareness of the feelings and emotions of others is a key element in creating powerful win-win situations with colleagues and team members. Staff engagement can be significantly increased with this skill alone which, of course, has benefits all the way to the bottom line.

In part 3, I talked about how ‘Sarah’, our hypothetical leader, used self awareness and self regulation to decide how she would respond in a disagreement with a staff member. She used her motivation for trust to help her choose an approach that would safeguard her working relationship with her employee rather than following her emotional impulses that may have been damaging.

These three steps are the inner elements of Emotional Intelligence.

Now we’ll explore how Sarah would use empathy to communicate with the staff member for the best outcome to the disagreement. This is the link between self and others because it’s how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.

Before we dive in to the ‘how’, let’s have a quick look at the ‘what’ or, more specifically, the ‘what not’. There are some misconceptions around about empathy, so here’s what it’s not:

Empathy isn’t ‘backing down’ or being soft. You can understand and even appreciate someone else’s point of view without giving up your own. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you take on the other person’s problems, that would be counter productive.

So what is empathy?

Empathy is the process of listening to understand the other person’s point of view and associated feelings without judgment. It’s like stepping into their shoes with the intention of really understanding what it’s like from their perspective. You can ask yourself questions such as ‘how are they seeing this?’ and ‘what does this situation look like from this perspective?’

Be curious in your approach rather than judging, blaming or defensive. Fully understanding someone’s perspective does not mean agreeing with them!

Here’s a step by step:

  • Listen with the intention to understand not respond. Listen particularly for feelings and needs, this will help you filter through the information to what’s important to the person.

  • Take an enquiring attitude to ask for more information to help you understand their position even more. Eg. ‘can you tell me a bit more about how you see … please?’

  • Reflect back to the person what you have heard and check if it’s accurate. Eg. ‘I hear you saying that you are fed up with the current system because it causes you extra work. Is that right?’

  • Allow the person time to make adjustments to your understanding if they think you haven’t quite understood their point completely.

  • Reflect back to them what you now understand. Keep listening and reflecting until the person acknowledges that you’ve got it. Stay calm and objective throughout – you are just trying to understand not educate or convert them in any way.

Only once the person tells you that you’ve got it, are they ready to hear what you have to say. In your response, bear in mind their perspective and be respectful even in disagreement. If the person reacts, you can go back to empathy again.

When you can hear people like this, you convey the message that you respect their opinion and you take them seriously. They are much more likely to walk away from a disagreement in a good state if they feel like they were treated fairly and respectfully.

The best leaders understand the long term benefits of keeping their employees engaged and committed to the organisation. Using empathy as a respectful framework for letting people have their say is a solid foundation for creating a dedicated staff because when people feel safe, important and valued, they naturally want to give more.

In Part 5, we’ll look at the fifth and final element of Emotional Intelligence: Social Skill.

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