The Lost Art of Empathy

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Empathy at Work

She had lost her husband; her sadness weighed her down as she walked out of the grocery store. The little boy held his father’s hand as they walked by and watched the elderly lady walk towards her car. After a moment of thinking, he asked his father, “What’s wrong with Mrs. Clare?”

“She lost her husband?”

“Oh. Can’t she get another?”

“How would you feel if our dog, Jake died?” The father asked.

“Sad. Terrible.”

“Would you want another Jake?”

The boy looked at his father, point well made, and said, “She is sad.”

They walked into the grocery store and started shopping. As the boy walked by the boxes of macaroni and cheese, he stopped and put a few boxes into the cart.

“Put them back,” his father said.

“No,” the boy responded. “We need to make them for Mrs. Clare.”


“When I am sad, you always make me, Mac and Cheese to cheer me up. I want to do the same for Mrs. Clare.”

Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, thoughts, and situations and to experience them as your own. In the above story, the boy’s father guided him to understand how Mrs. Clare felt by imagining what it would be like if he lost something dear to him. Unfortunately, the ability to see the world from another’s perspective is becoming a lost art.

We no longer take the time to think about how the other person might be feeling; how their situation may be different from ours; how their perspective is unique to them. We create mental short cuts to say this group acts this way or that group always behaves this way. It is easier than taking the time to get to know the person.

At a large corporation, I worked at there was a program called “Walk-a-Mile.” Each employee had the opportunity to work in another department for the afternoon with the hope that if they better understood what the other department did, they would be more than willing to help them out. Guess what? It worked. Employees would come back and explain the challenges the other department had and how their department could help them out.

Can we increase Empathy at work?

I believe so, and I am not the only one. In his article, Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, Roman Krznaric provides us insights on how to do precisely that.

  1. Cultivate Curiosity: People who are talking to individuals outside of our usual social circles have a higher level of empathy. Increase opportunities for your employees to interact with each other. In one situation, a manufacturing company moved their offices to the center of the manufacturing floor; this allowed the management staff more opportunities to interact with the production employees and to see the work through their eyes.  
  2. Discover Commonalities: We have more in common than we don’t. Create opportunities for employees to discover things that they have in common through work activities or team building. (Note: I am working on a program to do this; let me know if you are interested in beta testing this in your organization.)
  3. Teach Active Listening Skills: Active listening skills help the listener understand not only the words the speaker is saying but also the non-verbal cues as well to have fully enriched conversations. Being able to sense other’s emotions will help employees be more empathic in their responses.
  4. Build Trust: When two employees trust each other, they are willing to be more open and to share their perspective with others. Trust is a critical element in the success of high performing teams.
  5. Provide New Experience: As I mentioned above, the “Walk-A-Mile” program we used, provided opportunities for our employees to see things from another perspective. It doesn’t have to be limited to inside the business; give the employees opportunities to experience how a customer uses your services and products.
  6. Tell Stories: Stories help people relate. Go back and read the story above. Did you feel for Mrs. Clare? Did you feel for the father? How about the boy? Stories help people relate to others.

If we can’t measure it, we can’t improve it. Use this quick quiz at Berkely’s Greater Good to measure your level of empathy. If your empathy is high, how can you help others be empathic? If your empathy is low, use the six habits above to increase it.

In the world filled with misunderstanding, empathy is the antidote. It builds a positive corporate culture; it reduces stereotyping; it improves team performance; it teaches kindness.

Enjoy the Journey

John Thalheimer

PS: Are your managers effective in leading their teams to a high level of performance? According to the Gallup Organization, eighty-one percent of managers are not successfully leading their teams. This needs to change. I work with organizational managers so they can be a positive influence on their employees’ performance. At True Star Leadership, we coach, workshop, and mastermind with your management team to improve their leadership skills.  To learn more reach out to me at

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