Industry Update
Opinion Article20 March 2013

Empathy: Authentic or contrived, figure out how to convey it!

By Bob Taylor

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I feel your pain. (At least I know how to make you believe I do.) I am forever confounded by some manager's inability to convey even a modicum of empathy towards employees or customers. Whether it's an aggrieved team member or dissatisfied customer, some managers simply lack the capacity to subordinate their own agenda long enough to, if only for a moment, prioritize the needs of the individual standing in front of them. That's a shame, because in many instances, the mere expression of "some understanding and appreciation" for what someone is going through is all that's really needed.


In our consulting practice we frequently encounter managers that proclaim empathy as a professional strength, only to discover their real talent is being a good listener. That's great and important, but it isn't the same thing as being empathetic. Expressing empathy requires us to actually engage the individual, talk to them, use real words and, dare I say it, send some non-verbal messages, too.

First, a note to the truly empathetic: Congratulations! Your capacity and ability to convey "caring and understanding" will serve you well and will probably allow you to easily form deep, lasting relationships. That having been said, be careful not to over play your hand. All too often, over empathizing leads to over identification with the person or situation and that's a prescription for cloudy judgment, faulty analysis and all that goes with it.

 Now, for those amongst us that don't naturally convey empathy, here's the deal: While authentic is ideal, in most cases contrived empathy will work just fine and it can be learned. Here's a simple technique you can use. The next time you're confronted by a person (team member or customer) that's had a "bad" experience, try this simple technique:

  •  Statement #1: "I am very sorry you've had a bad experience. Please, tell me what's happened … because I really want to understand what you've gone through."
  • Statement #2: "Geez … based on what you've shared with me, I think most people would probably feel (sad or angry or frustrated or confused, etc.), too.
  • Statement #3: "For what it's worth, I've had a similar experience and certainly know how it feels. Before we jump to the "where do we go from here?" part of our conversation, is there anything else you want to share?"
  • Statement #4: "I really appreciate you sharing this situation and your feelings with me. I know it's not always easy dealing with sensitive topics and I want you to know I'm here to help. So, let's talk about what our next steps should be."

Similar to the classic sales technique for overcoming objections, this "Feel, Felt, Found" approach will allow you to maintain a positive, constructive orientation to the situation while also ensuring you are attending to the emotional needs of the person. I won't promise you that it will solve the world's problems, but it can go a long way towards defusing a bad situation.

Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor, co-founder and CEO of OrgWide Services, brings 30 years of hands-on management, real-world leadership, and business experience to our organization. Bob's enthusiasm and commitment for developing skills in others has resulted in a synthesis of a business and personal philosophy that culminated in the inception of Orgwide.

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    Orgwide represents a significant breakthrough in how organizations are able to manage the acquisition and distribution of knowledge and expertise. Leveraging our problem solving talents and consulting skills, we combine the science of learning and the art of communication with advanced analytics to dramatically improve your organization's results. Our highly-skilled, multi-disciplinary team of process consultants, instructional designers, communications experts and assessment specialists can significantly and creatively make your organization more efficient. More information at