A Publication of WTVP

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article by Executive Coach Mike Crompton in a series for iBi about how to improve your emotional intelligence (EQ) to become a more effective leader. The first article in February included an overview of the four EQ quadrants: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. The April article centered on self-awareness, and the June article addressed self-management. Crompton discusses social awareness in this issue and will complete the series on the final quadrant, relationship management, in a future issue.

The third emotional intelligence (EQ) quadrant of social awareness consists of these three essential components:

  1. Empathy means trying to understand the viewpoint of others and to see things from their perspective. (Empathy differs from sympathy, which means feeling sorry for others and their predicament.)
  2. Service ethic involves anticipating, recognizing and meeting or exceeding customer needs and expectations. Employees with this skill understand customers’ needs and match them with products and services.
  3. Organizational awareness can be described as the ability to recognize both the social and political dynamics that occur on teams, in businesses and even communities. People with this skill can accurately read key power relationships, and then make effective use of these relationships to achieve desired results.

This article focuses on empathy. It’s the most vital EQ component of social awareness, with a strong link to self-awareness. Because empathy can profoundly affect the quality of leadership and a leader’s effectiveness, leaders should constantly strive to improve their capacity to empathize.

The old song title “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” sums up the concept of empathy. It can be defined as the ability to put oneself in another’s place (or “shoes”) and take that perspective into account in one’s relationship with another person. With empathy, we can sense the feelings and perspectives of others and take an active interest in
their concerns.

Leading Effectively Requires Empathy
Empathy can also be described as being tuned-in to how others feel in the moment. By being attuned to how others feel, an effective leader will likely say and do what is most appropriate in any given situation. That may involve calming fears, reducing the severity of anger or joining in the high spirits of the team. A leader who lacks empathy will likely and unknowingly be off-key and speak or act in ways that elicit negative responses or make tense situations worse.

In general, employees perceive leaders adept at displaying empathy as approachable and willing to listen to pressing issues. These leaders use empathy to facilitate effective teamwork, which is crucial given today’s diverse, cross-cultural and global work environment.

A leader’s ability to empathize is also a key component to developing talent in the workplace—and just as important to the retention of talent. As the adage goes, “People join companies, but they leave their bosses.” And one of the primary reasons people leave organizations stems from an aloof, tuned-out leader—a leader who lacks empathy.

Tactics for Enhancing Your Ability to Empathize
Here are a few coaching tips that can help improve your empathy as a leader.

  1. Listening is the key. Practice quieting your mind. Put any internal clamor you’re experiencing to rest, and focus solely on listening to the other person. Remember, you don’t have to agree with what is said. Your goal is simply to listen, acknowledge and strive to understand the other person’s point of view.
  2. Learn to listen for feelings. People don’t always express their true feelings or concerns directly, so listen for words that express feelings and needs. Keep in mind as you listen that all of us yearn to be recognized and included in the process. We want acknowledgement that our viewpoint is legitimate.
  3. Make time for people. As busy and pressed for time as you are, you must still make addressing the concerns and feelings of others a top priority. If you don’t, you send the message that you consider others and/or their issues unimportant. Remember, people judge leaders by their actions—not words. 
  4. Acknowledge what you think you heard (or saw). Use the effective technique of paraphrasing to play back what you heard someone say. It’s a good way to check for accuracy and understanding. Also, be sure to clarify the emotions you think you “heard” in spoken words or “saw” in body language. For example, you might say something like “sounds like you are feeling frustrated about this project.” Or, “looks like you’re happy about this assignment.”
  5. Withhold judgment. When you’re tempted to criticize or dismiss the opinions or feelings of others, stop. Take a step back before you speak. Think on an emotional level, as well as a cognitive level, about what others may be experiencing. Also, consider the merits of their point of view before you respond. Always try to make your responses objective—and non-judgmental.

In essence, empathy allows leaders to fine-tune a message to fit the audience and the specific situation. Leaders highly skilled in empathy listen actively and attentively, grasping another person’s viewpoint accurately. They also work well with people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. Leaders who work at increasing their ability to empathize will constantly improve the quality of their leadership and their effectiveness—and, as a result, their company’s bottom line. iBi

Mike Crompton is a Certified Executive Coach and Founder of The Excel Leadership Group, LLC. The company offers executive coaching and a variety of leadership development services. Visit for more information.