EMPATHY SERIES | PART 4: Is empathy trainable?

In the previous article in this series, I proposed that there is a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for emotional connection – not too little, not too much, but just right. The two forms of empathy that are required for leaders to operate in the zone are cognitive and affective empathy – being able to recognise others emotional states, and actually feeling something in response.

Although for many leaders, learning how to connect emotionally with others requires their own emotional education first. Fortunately, cognitive and affective empathy are largely trainable and learnable. While a very small percentage of adults may lack the underlying neural circuitry for empathy – such as some individuals diagnosed with autism, or psychopathy – I have found that most leaders can quickly build their emotional intelligence through two key skills. These are recognising emotions and responding appropriately to emotions.


1. Recognising emotions

The most direct route to understanding how others feel is to ask them. These can be simple questions such as, ‘How do you feel about that?’ or ‘How would you describe your emotional response to ...’. Sometimes, however, you may not have the opportunity to ask these questions, so observation and careful listening become important tools in developing a better sense of what others are emitting in the way of emotional signals.


Becoming an observer

The biggest impediment to paying attention to others’ emotional states is a tendency to focus on the practical issue or task at hand, rather than the person themselves. Often, we get so caught up in getting the job done and focusing on what’s at stake in a meeting, that we don’t pay attention to who has a stake in the meeting and what they are experiencing.


To help leaders develop this capacity, I often set them a task of becoming the watcher in a meeting they are not personally running or leading. Rather than tracking the group’s progress using the practical objectives of the meeting – such as planning, reviewing, and reporting – I ask the leader to instead carefully watch the faces and body language of the meeting participants, observing how they react to each other and noting the corresponding emotions that might be signalled. Most people are amazed by what is revealed to them by this exercise; however, they may struggle to accurately label the emotions they have observed.


Developing an emotional vocabulary

Having language to describe and label what you see and hear in your team is critical; however, recognising and describing emotions is akin to wine tasting. At first, most people lack the ability to distinguish more than just a few obvious aromas or flavours, but even simple training with an aroma wheel or similar can quickly and rapidly expand the range of smells and taste sensations you can pick up.


I stumbled across a similarly useful training method for emotions, quite accidentally on a cross-country flight. My headphones stopped working just as I started watching the in-flight movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep – both very capable actors. I only had the visual data to work with so I decided to see if I could make sense of the movie without hearing the dialogue. I discovered that as I watched I could discern their emotions and was fascinated by just how much emotional information was being conveyed through their facial expressions. Try this yourself to start building your skills in reading different emotions.


Other tools such as the Mood Meter app for your phone can then be very helpful in expanding your emotional vocabulary and sense making of different emotions. I highly recommend them.


2. RESPONDING TO EMOTIONS

As a young man, I realised that while I could recognise others’ emotions, I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I encountered them in my team members. This is partly a result of growing up in a household that valued cool logic and emotional evenness, with relatively few memorable incidences of strong negative emotions such as rage, sorrow, apprehensiveness or depression. Having little experience in seeing what overtly displayed warmth, compassion and empathy looked like in response to these emotions, I didn’t have many templates for what appropriate empathetic responses might be, and at the same time admired greatly those leaders who seemed to be able to do it with ease. I consequently did a lot of conscious and deliberate work in my twenties and thirties to develop this skill.


A simple method

In that process, I learnt that perhaps the simplest and most effective way of responding to others’ emotions is to acknowledge two things about the person’s experience:

  1. Name the actual emotion or emotions the other person is experiencing.

  2. Identify the situation or issue that is generating the emotional response.

It doesn’t matter which part comes first, just that you include both. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘I see that you are frustrated by the change to the new process.’

  • ‘I hear your anger at being not listened to by the accounting team.’

  • ‘Winning that new contract has certainly put a smile on your face!’

Being specific

The naming of the emotion and the corresponding cause is much more powerful than general statements such as, ‘I understand’ or ‘I get it’ because you are providing proof that you do actually get it. In fact, as a leader you should be careful not to use lines such as, ‘I hear you’ or ‘I get where you are coming from’. These statements provide little to no evidence that you have, in fact, recognised the emotional state of the other person. I have also seen average leaders use these throwaway lines too many times purely to placate the other person, with that disingenuous use being quite inflammatory to the other person. I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing is more infuriating than feeling you are being patronised by someone who really isn’t that interested in you.


Name it if you want to tame it

Another benefit of naming a negative emotion the other person is experiencing is that doing so can help to minimise its effect. When a team member experiences strong interfering emotions such as anger, frustration or disappointment, these emotions can get in the way of them being able to move forward. ‘Name it to tame it’ is a phrase coined by the psychiatrist Dan Siegel, who showed that when we name unhelpful interfering emotions, we also lessen their hold over us, allowing us to engage in more deliberate and considered actions.


These are just a few ways to learn to connect emotionally with others, with many other great resources out there such as our Xtraordinary Leader programs and my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership.


I hope that this series of articles has been useful to you in highlighting the critical role that emotional connection plays in our leadership and our lives. It’s a part of leadership that I believe is central to our humanity and so deserves our best efforts to grow and improve in. By doing so we improve our collective human experience.


About the author: Gerard Penna

Gerard is a world class international facilitator, coach, author and speaker. His purpose is to challenge and support leaders and teams to develop to their full potential and achieve remarkable results.

His curiosity about what makes great leadership began in his teenage years, fuelling over 30 years of work and research into psychology, education, strategy, and business.

He has coached, trained, and evaluated thousands of leaders; from frontline supervisors to CEOs across a vast array of industries, formulating deeply insightful views on the why, what and how of leadership.