Leaders are supposed to be empathetic: here’s exactly how to do that

by | Mar 3, 2020 | Ross Leaders Academy, Self-Leadership, Strategies and Tips, Empathy

You’ve heard it said over and over at Michigan Ross, the b-school for purpose-driven leaders: empathy is the key to leading effectively. But what does that mean, exactly? And more importantly, how do you do it?

Research shows that empathy is critical to effectively and successfully lead others. The Center for Creative Leadership shares that empathetic leaders are assets to organizations, in part, because they are able to effectively build and maintain relationships—a critical part of leading organizations anywhere in the world. Further, Michigan Ross faculty Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer make the case for forming deep connections at work (“high-quality connections”) in their book, How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact, as a means to boost creativity, commitment, learning, and engagement. 

Here are a few tips that we shared with our students at the Ross Leaders Academy recently to help you practice empathy and become a better leader.

1.Listen without judgment
Forget what you think you know about a person. Put all electronic devices out of sight and focus on actively listening. Research from the University of Essex found that the mere presence of a phone on the table between two people changes the depth of their conversation and connection. Resist the urge to form questions in your head while the other person is speaking. Instead, focus on what’s being said, what’s not being said, and the emotions expressed verbally and nonverbally.

2. Be curious and ask questions
Asking follow up questions sends a clear signal to the storyteller that you’re actively listening. A response as simple as “tell me more about that” can open up opportunities for deeper understanding and the discovery of similarities. Avoid offering suggestions or solutions—this sends the wrong message to the storyteller who desires to be heard and understood. Being an empathetic leader requires listening, understanding, and taking the perspective of the storyteller rather than trying to fix the problem.

3. Acknowledge the experience
You might have heard the phrase “we have more in common than we have differences.” As human beings, we tend to share similar experiences and feelings. When someone shows vulnerability, acknowledge that person’s perspective by repeating back what they revealed. Sharing and mirroring their emotions enables trust and connection, and the storyteller will feel heard. However, at times, it may feel that it’s almost impossible to relate or truly imagine what a person has been through. In these instances, don’t force it—if you aren’t able to relate or understand, have an honest discussion with the intention to learn.


Empathy is a skill that can be learned and improved. To be more empathetic, you need to practice. It’s going to be hard at first! Intentionally taking the perspective of someone else will take you out of your comfort zone, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.

Challenge yourself to strike up a conversation with a new colleague or a complete stranger and go beyond superficial topics. Go beneath the surface and you might be surprised at the deep connection you’re able to create!

Sample questions that go beneath the surface:

  • What is your purpose in life and what does it say about who you are?
  • What event in your life shaped you the most?
  • f you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
  • Tell me about what keeps you up at night.

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