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8 Tips for Leading with Empathy

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

If you're a career professional, you've undoubtedly witnessed or experienced weak leadership. Perhaps it was with a boss who micromanaged everything within the organization or whose only motivation was more money in the bank. Perhaps it was a boss who thought fear was an effective strategy that leads to productivity and loyalty. It isn't.

People want leaders who make them feel represented and heard. They want leaders who care and lead with an intentional understanding of the people they are leading -- their passion, preferences, and motivations.

In other words, effective leadership can be described as leading with empathy.

Empathy, therefore, is an integral part of leadership and growth.

Here are 8 strategies to become the kind of empathetic leader that inspires others.

1. Prioritize Listening

Empathic listening is an attitude, a skill, and a sign of emotional intelligence. Empathetic listening is a more complicated skill than just basic listening. It requires “showing up” to a conversation in an authentic way to demonstrate we are attentive to others’ needs, wants, and emotions. This ultimately builds stronger bonds with the people we lead.

The more you understand what the team is communicating, the more effective your leadership will be. When you prioritize listening, you build trust, give respect, and better understand the thoughts and concerns of the people you rely on each day.

2. Remove distractions to give your team your undivided attention.

When leaders give their full attention, they show they care for and respect their team.

In turn, a team who feels respected is more likely to trust a leader. This creates an environment of mutual respect, good morale, motivation, and productivity. In other words, you improve your influence as a leader.

3. Avoid interrupting - your team wants to be heard!

When a team member doesn't feel heard, they may feel devalued, even disrespected.

To avoid this from happening, let them share what's on their mind. Quiet your thoughts

and open your ears. Listen before speaking.

When leaders listen to their employees, they build cohesive teams. When they ignore or

talk over the ideas and concerns of their employees, they build frustration and even churn.

TIP IN ACTION: To avoid this from happening, try pausing 10 seconds before responding. This will show the other person you are processing what they have said and give you time to gather your thoughts.

4. Be conscious of what your team is communicating non-verbally.

Effective leaders are highly attuned to both verbal and non-verbal communication.

An employee's body language can offer clues as to what they are really thinking or feeling.

Often, it even communicates more than words.

TIP IN ACTION: Pay attention to the following nonverbal cues:

Posture and gesture: Do they sit up straight and lean in (motivated and engaged)? Or do they fidget and cross their arms (distracted, maybe even upset)?

Eye contact: Is it direct and lasting (interested and alert) or quick and fleeting (nervous, lacking confidence)?

Facial expressions: Emotions like happiness, confusion, boredom, and anger are usually easy to pick up on (eye, eyebrow, and mouth movements convey a lot of information).

5. Actively Listen

Active listening can encourage stronger communication between leaders and their team. The objective of active listening in the workplace is to fully understand the message, including any feelings beyond the spoken word that may be conveyed nonverbally.

6. Listen for deeper meaning

When the team is conveying a message, there are two meanings to explore: the content

and the feeling or attitude underlying the message. A strong leader is tuned in to the

information conveyed and how it is conveyed (with nonverbal and communication

preference cues).

Your physiology can also provide insights. Once you become attuned, your body sends

fairly reliable signals to let you know when something feels “off,” allowing you to read

between the lines with greater acuity. Your intuition (or a gut feeling) can serve you well,

signaling that it’s appropriate to explore a comment or situation with greater depth.


Let’s say you’re in a meeting with a team member who tends to be guarded and analytical.

She presents facts and figures in a structured, organized fashion. She has an innate need

for accuracy and order that compels her to be prepared before she speaks.

If you’re a visionary leader who thrives on spontaneity and flexibility, you might be

irritated by a team member’s deliberate — and seemingly slow — pace at which she

delivers detailed and accurate information in a structured and organized fashion.

Understanding and adapting to her style by responding with a logical, orderly analysis of

her information can facilitate cooperation and results. She will likely respond well to

requests that give her time to be accurate and complete before presenting.

(Reach out to to learn more about strategies to adapt and connect to other people's communication and decision-making preferences utilizing a powerful system such as Insights Discovery).

7. Ask powerful questions

A leader’s primary tool for demonstrating empathy is the ability to ask high-quality

questions that lead to greater understanding. Quality questions promote a safe space for

thoughtful reflection and dialogue about the issue at hand. Choosing the right type of

questions and how you ask those questions will make a critical difference in building trust,

which is the cornerstone of effective leadership.

TIP IN ACTION: Powerful (or high quality) questions help leaders remove judgment and open the team to possibility and potential. Fundamentally, when a leader begins with why questions such as:

Why did you do that?

Why didn’t you do that?

It suggests that there is a right or wrong answer that the team needs to defend or justify.

Moreover, the team may mistakenly assume the boss is thinking they are right and their

team members are wrong. They see the leader as judgmental and looking for justification.

Instead, strong leaders come to the team conversation with a curious mindset to learn as

much as possible from the team. Leaders want to understand what their teams see that

they don’t see, and what they know that they don’t know.

Exchanging “why” questions with “what” or “how” questions help leaders dig deeper and

learn more from their teams, resulting in better decision-making and outcomes.

Examples of powerful questions:

● What can I do to help?

● Can you say more about that?

● Can you tell me more about that?

● What prompted that action?

● What kind of support would be helpful?

● What makes that important?

● How does that decision impact the team?

● What do you think motivated that?

8. Restate / clarify what you’re hearing

Clarifying or restating what they’re hearing allows leaders to confirm the nuts and bolts of

the issue at hand so she/he can ask high-quality questions and provide helpful feedback to

the team.

By restating the questions or comments in their own words, leaders demonstrate that

they are listening carefully and understand what would be most helpful to the team

member. It also allows your team member to find a way to simplify or clarify what they said

if a key point has been misheard or misunderstood.

TIP IN ACTION: Repeat what you’re hearing back to them. Avoid parroting verbatim, but after a team member is done expressing their thoughts and feelings, repeat their words back. Doing so validates their thoughts by acknowledging you heard and understood them.

Examples of clarifying questions or restating include:

● Let me see if I understood correctly.

● Can I just check what I got from that?

● I’d just like to confirm that I got that right.

● My impression of what you said was… Is that what you meant?

● So what you are saying is… Does that sound right?

● You mean that we should (do X action and Y action). Is that right?

● Do I understand you to mean…

● If I understand you correctly, you are saying…

● Am I reading your suggestion right when you said…?

● You mean…?

● I think you are saying…

● In other words…

Empathetic leaders are more effective and productive because they know how to recognize the feelings and needs of their employees and instill a sense of confidence in them to succeed.


Powerful Perspective

At the core, empathy is a combination of self-awareness, acceptance of others, and an appreciation for another's preferences.

Acceptance and appreciation are powerful perspectives that begin at the awareness line and move upward toward gratitude and love.

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