How to Work with Empathy

August 16, 2022


Dr Sven Hansen

From ignorance and distress to altruism and influence

Empathy has been touted as a key leadership skill for many years. When mastered, it is the path to effective influence. Low empathy is a risk for failed leadership. Empathic distress can derail our leadership and can compromise our own wellbeing. The purpose of this article is to clarify the language and skills required for effective leadership.

Empathy, sympathy, kindness, altruism, compassion and compassion fatigue are terms that are easily misunderstood. Their use has also changed over time. To apply empathy with skill requires clear terminology and a shared understanding. While you may choose your own terminology, here are some evidence-based definitions.


Empathy is awareness rather than action.[1] Empathy gives us an accurate map of another person or others. For social mammals and humans, empathy allows for collaboration, survival and success.[2]  Empathy is effortful. It requires intention, focus and detailed evaluation. The work of empathy happens through a number of differentiated networks in the brain.[3] These networks are influenced by genes, early environment, culture and personal practice.

The first network maps the physical state of others. We notice their posture, skin, movement, breathing and pulse. The second network maps the emotional state of others through facial expressions and tone of voice. The third network maps the perspective and thinking of others. Respectively we call them physical, emotional and cognitive empathy. All three circuits when trained show increased activity and volume in the brain.

Empathy and Systemising operate in tension. We tend to be good at one more than another. A high empathiser may find it natural to tune into others while a high systemiser can be brilliant at logic while missing many social cues. Autism disorders are an extreme example of the latter.[4]

Altruism (compassion)

When we take action to improve the state and prospects of others, we are practicing altruism. This may range from alleviating suffering to challenging someone to give their best effort. Ideally, altruism serves both the short and long term needs of the other. The primary role of parents, coaches, caregivers and leaders is altruism. Effective altruism provides the support and direction for others to succeed with autonomy rather than dependency.

Empathic Distress (sympathy)

When we tune into the emotion of others, we experience strong reactions. For example, if someone is in tears over a bereavement, we may feel sad. Witnessing the suffering or anger of another can have a powerful effect on your own emotion and physiology. While this is an integral part of emotional empathy, negative emotion can lead us to poor decisions.[5] Empathy becomes distorted and biased. When we feel distress, we lose focus on the other person and try to reduce the suffering we feel in ourselves.

Here, we act to reduce our discomfort rather than taking the best decision for others. Examples include parents spoiling children, contributions to some charities, and taking on the responsibilities of your co-workers. Excessive kindness, without wisdom creates dependency. The increased workload is on you and can lead to compassion fatigue. You are simply exhausted from overprotecting others.

The Process for Developing Skilled Empathy and Altruism

There is no doubt that empathy is learnable and visible on a brain scan.[6] It is learned through mimicry and practice. Healthy bonding with a mother, then family and community lays the foundations. In a community where others demonstrate empathy, we are more likely to copy. The opposite is also true. We can apply our mind and various practices that have measurable effects on empathy and altruism.

1. Calm and Connect

Our social engagement system needs to be active. When we are anxious, angry or depressed, it shuts down. When the ventral (or new) Vagus Nerve activates we calm, restore health, experience safety and engage.[7] We can train the ‘Vagal Brake’ through slowing heart rate, breathing slowly, chanting, cold water or yoga. Many leaders and professionals are under so much relentless pressure, that they are unable to activate the social engagement system. The mental health issues of our time are an added handicap. When distressed, empathy, altruism and trust are not available.

2. Be Steady and Positive

We must be able to maintain emotional stability and positivity. While we must sense the state of others, we must not be the victim of someone’s distress. To achieve this steady, caring and yet positive state requires sleep, fitness, relaxation and emotional agility. It is only through maintaining steadiness that we are able to think clearly, make good decision and act skilfully to help another.

3. Prepare

Be deliberate in your preparation for an important conversation. Consider what the other person is experiencing and seeking. Define your own state and goals. Rehearse the steps below.

4. Physical Empathy

Step into the physical space of a conversation with full attention. Remove distractions and engage face to face as much as possible. Pay attention to posture, skin colour, breathing, eyes and the pulse in the neck. If not sure, ask how someone is feeling. Perhaps you might say: “I can imagine that would make you anxious.” You are mapping with physical empathy. It is the foundation of the other person’s experience.

5. Emotional Empathy

Fifth, tune into expressions of emotion. It is worth learning the basic expressions.[8] The eyes, mouth and face share thousands of movements that signal accurate the feeling of another. The voice is a rich and accurate source of emotional information. It is very hard to fake emotions. By paying careful attention to the subtle signals, you can map the emotional experience of another. Emotion predicts thought and action.

6. Cognitive Empathy (perspective taking)

Reflect on what the other person may be thinking. What is their perspective?  What may be concerns or hopes? If you are unsure, ask with respect (“Help me understand your position?”). When more confident you might repeat what you believe they are thinking (Am I right in thinking you were frustrated by that?”). You are practicing cognitive empathy or perspective taking.

7. Get to know the whole person

In the past we lived in small and tightly connected communities where we knew each other in detail. In a global and virtual world, we may know little about someone before a conversation. Over and above your research and preparation, take a moment in a conversation to understand more about the person.  Over time this builds for a rich context within which to apply empathy.

On completion these deeper conversations, it is good to thank the other party. Repeat the key elements, the conclusion and your commitments to each other. This is the altruistic path. We have understood each other. We agree to take responsibility for appropriate action. We are creating a culture of candour, safety, care and trust.

Empathy with skill is a crucial foundation for effective leadership

Remember that a high empathy and altruism conversation is biologically expensive. Take enough time to relax and rejuvenate before marching to the next engagement.

[1] Goleman, Daniel, Working with Emotional Intelligence, 1998

[2] Wilson, Edward O., The Social Conquest of Earth, 2013

[3] Singer, Tania, and Ricard, Matthieu, Power and Care, 2019

[4] Baron-Cohen, Simon, The Pattern Seekers, 2020

[5] Bloom, Paul, Against Empathy, 2018

[6] ~Power and Care, The Pattern Seekers

[7] Porges, Stephen, Polyvagal Safety, 2021


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