how to develop empathy

Empathy is essential in everyday life as it helps people understand what others are feeling and the reasons behind what they’re doing. Being empathetic can aid in responding to a particular situation appropriately. 

The concept of empathy is not reserved for people born with it; it’s a skill that can be learned and nurtured through time with enough effort and dedication. For instance, leaders have a wealth of knowledge and skills they can impart, including empathy.

However, being an effective leader is more about placing yourself in an employee’s shoes and looking at a situation from their perspective. While some view empathy as a static trait, and some believe emotions have no space in the workplace, that’s not necessarily the case.

Let us discuss some of the most common exercises for leaders looking to develop their sense of empathy and their skill of effectively exhibiting it.

8 Intentional Exercises for Leaders

If you’re looking to enrich your leadership abilities and improve your empathy skills, you can do some of these exercises and activities.

Imagine how an empathetic leader should think and act

Consider past experiences and prominent leader-like figures who have impacted your life. After contemplating, ask yourself, “what is my definition of an empathetic leader?”

It’s important to ask yourself this as it will be the basis of your growth as the empathetic leader you strive to be. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to copy your ideal empathetic leader; you can follow their example and create your methods.

Keep a journal

Keeping a journal that you can look back on allows you to reflect and rediscover how you felt in a particular moment. It also allows you to be more retrospective about the forces and motivations that influenced you and the people around you to make that moment possible.

Knowing where people are coming from can significantly contribute to developing your empathy and decision-making skills.

Ask better questions

An excellent way to show empathy and uncover issues is to ask powerful and open-ended questions to your employees. It will help them articulate what they’re going through and develop your understanding of their situation better.

An example is, instead of directly asking, “are you angry/sad/happy?” ask, “how is this affecting you?” Making a conscious effort to express genuine care towards your colleagues can help them understand their emotions better and make work relationships more meaningful.

Ask the three “whys”

Asking the three whys allows you to get to the root of a problem. For example, suppose an employee wants to quit their job, you can ask, “why do you want to quit your job,” “why do you dislike attending work,” and “why do you think there has been a cultural change in the office?”

The questions will differ with every subsequent answer. Powerful questions will peel back more profound layers of the problem, thus, helping you understand what caused the spur-of-the-moment decision.

Practice empathic listening

Empathic listening allows you to be a more mindful listener, which can afford tremendous therapeutic value to a struggling employee. The main goal is to understand what someone is saying and give them enough space to feel heard and validated. 

To be an empathic listener, you must be willing to let another person lead the discussion, remain utterly attentive, avoid interrupting, ask open-ended questions, and avoid coming to premature conclusions and providing unsolicited answers.

The Trading Places Exercise

Seeing things from a different perspective can be helpful, especially if you’re amid a disagreement or conflict with another person.

The Trading Places Exercise helps you develop your empathy skills by reframing the situation from another person’s point of view and provides valuable insights into the actions necessary to resolve an issue and move forward.

This exercise can be accomplished by sitting quietly, focusing on your breath, and contemplating past conflicts you’ve had with someone. Once completed, write down your thoughts and feelings about the situation and the person.

Once your contemplation is over, imagine a person with great wisdom and how they would’ve managed the situation. This helps reframe the problem from a more neutral perspective, and it may help you trudge a way forward to a win-win situation.

You can write it down once more and ensure that you’ve recognized the essence of their knowledge and the insights it offers to the problem. 

The Compassion Exercise

You can ease empathy distress by practicing The Compassion Exercise. While empathy aids in understanding another person’s pain, compassion opens possibilities for you to assist by stimulating your desire to help.

Start by sitting down quietly, focusing on your breathing. Now, think of someone in your life that’s facing a dilemma. Ask yourself, “why am I in pain?” This is most likely because you care for the person.

Think deeper, spend time feeling the genuine need to help that person, and ask yourself what you would say to them at that moment. Once done, write down an action for yourself and how you can help ease that person’s difficulty.

The Empathy Picture Exercise

The Empathy Picture Exercise encourages you to utilize your imagination to create a picture of someone else’s situation.

Start by cutting out a scene from a newspaper or magazine and attach the picture to a larger sheet of paper. Now, ask questions about the person in your chosen image and their life, imagining possible answers.

Once done, write down your answers. The answers can be manufactured entirely based on your imagination, but you may also incorporate past experiences. This exercise can help you train your mind to look at the motivations and background of people to understand where they are coming from when they do something or act in a certain way. 

An Exercise in Empathy

Empathy is an essential skill for a capable leader. While some may argue that empathy is something you’re born with, it can be enriched and nurtured with proper methods like other core skills. Keep these intentional exercises in mind to be an excellent leader through empathy. 

If you require an excellent career coach, consider checking out Coaching 4 Good. Coaching 4 Good allows you to find your coach by practicing empowered actions that lead to extraordinary results. For further inquiries, contact us today.


how to develop empathy, How to Develop Empathy: 8 Intentional Exercises for Leaders

Kim Garmany

Kim Garmany is the Chief Operating Officer at Coaching 4 Good, a woman-owned career and leadership development company based in Austin, Texas. Leading with kindness and compassion, Kim has spent most of her career working with nonprofit organizations to build stronger communities. She believes that all people should have access to a safe place to live and dignified work.

Take a look at what she’s up to now at

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how to develop empathy, How to Develop Empathy: 8 Intentional Exercises for Leaders

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