The Role of Empathy in
Emotional Intelligence

Emily A. Sterrett, Ph.D.

Published by:

HRD Press, Inc.

22 Amherst Road

Amherst, MA 01002


ISBN 978-1-61014-319-6

The Role of Empathy in
Emotional Intelligence


When Ed arrived at the office after his breakfast meeting, he noticed that his assistant Pat was sitting slouched at her desk. Always pleasant and cheerful and a diligent worker, she did not even look up when he came in, as if she wasn’t aware of his arrival. Ed took one look and sensed that something was wrong. He proceeded to his office to put his things away, and then decided to go see what might be wrong. He went up to her desk and said kindly, “Hi, Pat. Is anything wrong?” She looked at him sadly and just shrugged her shoulders. He said, “I’ll help you if I can. Would you like to come into my office and talk about it?” Pat hesitated a minute and then got up from her desk and followed Ed to his office.

* * * * *

Ed not only showed sensitivity to Pat, but also organizational wisdom: he understood that very little productive work would be accomplished unless he attended to her needs. Rather than ignoring her signals of distress, he decided to meet them head-on and use his own EQ to help Pat. Whatever the trouble, hearing an employee Whatever the trouble, hearing an employee out for a few minutes and possibly being able to offer helpful suggestions is time well-invested because it builds trust and increases productivity over the long-term. We can help them deal with the problem and move on.

Success in social interactions is a hallmark of Emotional Intelligence. We need to develop the ability to accurately assess the other person or the group and respond accordingly. The first step toward skillful social behavior is social knowledge or awareness. Such awareness or ability to tune in to others and feel what they are feeling is called empathy. Without empathy, we have difficulty sustaining relationships. People with high EQ have a number of strong relationships in all areas of their lives.

As we concentrate on developing ourselves, we focus inward to improve our self-knowledge, attitude, and behavior. We improve our relationships, however, by focusing outward, to others— by paying careful attention to the other person instead of ourselves. We must observe carefully with our eyes, and listen with hypersensitive ears.

Developing the Ability to Empathize

One of the ways to become aware of the other person is to show empathy—the ability to understand another person’s feelings by remembering a similar experience from our own life. We try to learn how and why they feel this way, and try to see things from their point of view. There can be no empathy without self-awareness of our own emotions, however, because we must relate to what they are going through on a personal level.

Not being able to recognize the feelings of others is a common and costly problem that lowers one’s Emotional Intelligence. A manager needs empathy and the ability to know intuitively, in his or her gut, how others feel at times—managing employees, dealing with customers, leading change, and in virtually all the “people aspects” of getting the job done.

When someone starts to tell us about their situation, our limbic brain quickly searches its storehouse of memories for a time when we had a similar experience and felt the same way. Feeling it internally is just a start; we must also try to put a label on the feeling. The basic language of emotion works not only to describe our own emotions, but can also offer us the language for empathy.

Research shows that our brains are hard-wired for empathy. As we get to know a person socially and professionally and understand what they are feeling and why, it becomes easier to put ourselves in their shoes. That does not mean that we agree with everything they are thinking and feeling—just that we see things somewhat from their perspective. Empathy builds trust. Without trust, other people will not work collaboratively with us and we will have no power to influence them.

Suggestions for Becoming More Empathic

  1. Practice developing empathy skills by focusing on your most difficult employee. The walk-in-their-shoes activity (see The Fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence for details) should help you understand what things are like for them.
  2. Try to look for similar/look for good (see the Fundamentals section). Always assume that people have the best of intentions. When they do have negative intentions, they will often be embarrassed into better behavior because others assume better of them.
  3. Keep a journal (see The Fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence for details). As you write about your thoughts and experiences, add a couple of sentences, using feeling words. Start them off with “I felt….” Make yourself start to focus on emotions that are associated with certain experiences.
  4. Observe and adopt a genuine attitude of curiosity and interest in the emotions of others. Reflect on and write about what emotions someone is likely to have had in certain situations. The more we can determine what another person’s needs are by watching and by asking, the better position we will be in to help them. The more help we provide, the better ally they will be and the more willing to reciprocate.
  5. As you identify a word or phrase that describes the emotion another person is showing, try to reflect on an experience you have had that produced a similar emotion in you. What were your physical sensations? What was your body telling you? Learn to put an emotional label on this. While not everyone experiences exactly the same emotions in a particular situation, chances are good that the other person had similar feelings.
  6. Listen better. That means don’t talk when someone else is sharing. Observe their nonverbal behavior carefully. (See the next section for details.)
  7. Avoid distorted thinking: Do not overgeneralize or allow yourself to engage in thinking, “He never…” or “She always….” (see The Fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence for details). Reframe such thoughts.
  8. Use a process comment to find out what’s really going on (see The Fundamentals of Emotional Intelligence for details).
  9. Ask trusted others for feedback on how well you are projecting empathy.

Reading Social Cues:
Listening with Our Eyes

Empathy also comes when we more accurately read nonverbal cues such as posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. Nonverbal cues include everything about communication except the words. Researchers tell us that about 90% of a given message is contained in the nonverbal cues while only about 10% of the meaning is contained in the words. Smooth communication requires us to pay attention to more than just the words, yet this is not what we do.

The physical reactions that accompany words are automatic responses that are directly linked to emotions. When you attend to nonverbal cues, look for physiological changes that show up in facial muscles, posture, gestures, voice pitch, volume or word emphasis, the color of the face or neck, and the breathing rate. All these signs are visible if we train ourselves to pay attention. Rather than focusing inward and rehearsing what we want to say, we should tune in to these cues so that we can better understand how we should react. When nonverbal cues indicate one thing and the words say something else, believe the nonverbals!

People who are adept at reading these cues are better adjusted socially and considered by others to be more socially competent. Social awareness greatly aids success in leadership roles. With practice, we can all improve—and this will improve our chances of success. The following table can serve as a guideline for interpreting the subtle cues other people present to us.

Part of Body Behavior of the Speaker Probable Meaning
Eyes Does he/she meet our eyes? Confident, willing, honest
Do they look down? Sad, worried, guilty, depressed, or dishonest
Do they look away, to the side? Concerned about something “out there” or in a hurry
Face Is the face tight, narrowed? Angry, worried, or pressured
Is the face loose, relaxed? Content, pleased, relaxed
Mouth Is the mouth set in a straight line? Serious, concentrating (if tightly set)
Is the mouth turned down? Sad, depressed
Mouth (cont’d.) Is the mouth upturned? Happy, enthusiastic
Posture/Position Shoulders held high and forward? Tense, angry, worried, anxious, hurried
Shoulders held high and back? Proud, ready to go
Shoulders drooping forward? Discouraged, depressed
Facing listener squarely, with open posture? Confident, serious, paying attention
Facing to the side or closed? Disinterested or unaccepting of what’s being said
Hand Gestures Fist clenched? Angry, stressed
Hands flying wildly around? Excited or trying to get attention
Color of Face Flushed with red? Angry, embarrassed, excited
Drained of all color? Afraid, disbelieving, horrified

Be alert for any changes: They will tell you that the person’s emotions have shifted, which might require you to shift your own behavior (see Social Competency and Emotional Intelligence for details).

Tone of Voice

A person’s tone of voice provides important clues about the meaning of the message. Most of us understand what all the nuances mean: louder-than-normal tone indicates anger or stress, while soft tone, especially with rising intonation at the end of sentences, suggests uncertainty and questions. A soft tone accompanied by other signs of anger (physical tension, glaring eyes, etc.) suggests that the person is trying to stay in control. Rapid speech indicates excitement, and slow speech indicates worry, fatigue, or depression.

We know these things; the problem is that we don’t pay attention to them. We minimize their importance because it is easier to respond to the words if we take them at face value. We might be busy ourselves or preoccupied about what we want to say next, or just not interested in what the other person has to say. So we pay attention only to their words, rather than where the true message lies—in their tone of voice or body language.

Once we get to know an employee or coworker, it is easy enough to pick up on subtle changes in tone of voice. This is critical, in fact, if we are to be effective in the Social dimension. A voice tone of worry or anger, for example, should be a wake-up call to the leader to ask more questions or try to offer help. These emotions do not go away, and if ignored by the manager, they will invariably return in a stronger form, which will probably be much more disruptive. Dealing with people’s emotions in the early stages will allow office relationships to run more smoothly.

Listening—The Vehicle to Empathy

Most of us are not nearly as good at listening as we think we are. The true proof of our listening ability is not how we rate ourselves, but how others we interact with regularly rate how well we listen. Ask colleagues how good a listener you are, and be ready for a surprise.

We all have certain things we are predisposed to hear and a habit of not hearing certain other things. We don’t hear what a certain person said because we don’t like him or her and aren’t really interested, or we hear only facts because we think everything else is a waste. Yet good listening skills are the keys to genuine empathy: when we practice selective listening, we cut ourselves off from important sources of data and risk alienating other people. When we learn to listen better, we gain the additional data we need to become a good leader and earn the respect of those we work with.

Suggestions for Improving Listening Effectiveness

  1. Train your mind to listen. Approach the person speaking with the intention of listening. If this is truly an impossible time to listen, be honest with the other person and make an appointment for another time when you can sit down together for a discussion.
  2. Focus your attention completely on the other person. Put down the pen and the telephone, and move away from the computer. Give the person who is talking your undivided attention. Don’t even worry about what you will say; just listen. This is not the time to focus on yourself. If you take those few extra minutes right now to really listen, the person won’t have to keep coming back to try to get your attention.
  3. Maintain eye contact throughout the interaction.
  4. Say nothing. Be quiet and let the other person talk. Let the other person say what he or she wants to say. When you are listening, most of the words should be his or hers, not yours. Allow enough time to let the person speak, without jumping right in with your own comments the minute he or she takes a breath.
  5. Let the person know you are listening: nod or occasionally say “uh-huh.” Summarize or paraphrase the content of what he or she said. Repeat back what he or she said in your own words (“In other words…” “So basically, what happened was…”).
  6. While the speaker is talking, quickly and silently recall a time in your own experience when you were in a similar position. Perhaps you did not feel exactly like what the person speaking to you is feeling, but when you put yourself in his or her shoes, you can see where he or she is coming from.
  7. Attach a label to his or her feelings. Try this: “You seem pretty upset about the change,” or “I can tell you are feeling a lot of pressure to do a good job with this project.” You might not have labeled his or her feelings accurately, but he or she will correct you. The point is that the other person will keep talking and release tension.
  8. Ask open-ended questions to enhance your understanding of the situation; the other person will give you more information. Use questions that begin with how, what, or why?
  9. The other person’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions become clear as he or she gives voice to his or her feelings. The listener does not have to say or do much. Do not be quick to jump in with answers; just allow the person to figure it out on his or her own whenever possible. This is empowerment—letting the other person figure it out. You may prompt him or her to become solution oriented by asking, “What do you think you should do now?”

What to Do When Listening

We all know people who can’t wait to tell a long and involved story about when they were in a similar situation. This is the last thing the speaker wants to hear! When you tell the other person about your situation and what you did about it, this takes the focus off the speaker’s problem and puts it back on you, the manager. This is arrogant and insensitive. A little self-disclosure might be helpful in this particular situation, but make sure you do not offer more than a sentence or two. Then bring the conversation back to the speaker’s situation: “I had something similar on my last job, and I got pretty upset about it until we worked out the details. So I can understand why you are upset now.”

Why Empathy Is So Vital

Dealing with an emotional situation as it presents itself is an important way to put out a small fire before it becomes a conflagration and begins to consume or destroy morale. Employees do not always come knocking on the manager’s door asking to talk! That’s why we have to be aware of these clues whenever we notice them and respond with empathy. This will prevent bigger problems later.

Empathy is not just for problems, however. Discussing things at work that have nothing to do with work, such as children, hobbies, or the arts, provide the emotionally intelligent leader with information about coworkers. These social interactions tell us what is important to other people. We can use this genuine empathy we’ve been working on to build good work relationships. Empathy increases trust and closeness, enables work processes and tasks to flow more freely, and improves our enjoyment and our productivity. If you ask Don how his son’s base-ball team is doing and say, “I know you’re proud of him,” the next time you need information or assistance from Don or anyone in Don’s department, you are more likely to get it.