Views on Listening: empathy


Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. This is the third in a series of blog posts on listening, in which Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programmes that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

Human beings can imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. Have you ever felt your toes pointing when you are watching dancing or cried watching a film? That is empathy at work: empathy doing its connecting magic. For that moment you are more interested in what is happening for the person that you are observing than you are interested in yourself. The ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to do that have been observed by neuroscientists and enable us to enjoy stories and to learn by watching.

The participants on our Research Team Leadership courses tell us that when someone listens to them really well they feel the listener’s empathy. describes empathy as: ‘intellectual identification with, or vicarious feelings thoughts or attitudes of another.’ We allow another person to affect us, and that way we are in a relationship. Empathy is the basic building block of healthy relationships – leaders need healthy working relationships.

There is a profound learning opportunity available when you decide to listen and empathise. You are making a decision and an effort to put down your view of the world in order to understand someone else’s view better. You are making your mind flexible, broad and open. When you listen and empathise your mind is in a position to receive a world-view that may conflict with your own.

The appreciation of empathy links Gandhi, Carl Rogers and Roman Krzniac. Carl Rogers describes empathy as a process rather than a state, which I quite like because it suggests something that you go through and experience, rather than something that you are. In training and developing leaders, demonstrating leadership skills such as: coaching styles and difficult conversations, allows observers to have some understanding of the techniques before learning and implementing them.

Roman Krzniac and Gandhi see empathy as something that enables beneficial change. Making change happen is a constant reality for leaders in higher education, so it seems worthwhile to deliberately develop our empathy. There is evidence that empathy can be taught to 98% of people. Roman Krzniac suggests we do the following to build our empathy:

  1. Listen empathically – listen in a way that deepens our understanding of another perspective, rather than reinforces our own perspective.
  2. Get curious about strangers – we are surrounded by thoughts and feelings that we know little about.
  3. Take experiential adventures – find out what it is like to be homeless or to live on a pound a day.
  4. Become a revolutionary – change the fabric of society because we care about others.
  5. Be an armchair traveller – watch documentaries, read books.

As a leader we can’t always choose who we’d like to empathise with or even when we might be able to offer empathy. CS Lewis said: ‘Everyone feels benevolent if nothing annoying is happening to them at the moment.’ Gandhi’s suggestion is the challenge I’d like to extend to leaders, he asks us to be ambitious about whose shoes we would step into.

If I challenge myself by thinking about when I struggle to empathise, it would be when people moan and complain without planning to do anything about what is bothering them. What I can’t see is why those people feel so disempowered to change the things that concern them. If I can’t understand I am probably ill-equipped to be of any help to them and I don’t think I’d be able to lead them very well.

Here is my version of Gandhi’s empathy challenge: ‘What would it mean to stretch your abilities to empathise over the next month?’

Read Shirley’s previous posts on listening here: 1. Listening 2. Appreciated and you can follow Shirley @EvolveLeadteam

2 thoughts on “Views on Listening: empathy

  1. Pingback: Views on Listening: empathy | shirleythinking

  2. Thank you for thesis thoughts . I love the idea of empathy as a process .

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