Emotional Intelligence

by Andy Smith

Step four: Empathy


Empathy is the ability to sense, understand and respond to what other people are feeling.

Self-awareness is an essential underpinning of empathy. If you are not aware of your own emotions, you will not be able to read the emotions of others.

Rating your own empathic abilities

Empathy is an area where 360° feedback is extremely useful. Many managers who believe they are empathic would be suprised to find that their colleagues have a different view. Have you ever observed a touchy-feely person insisting on hugging someone who clearly does not want to be hugged?

Because of the human tendency to project our own motivations and emotions on to others, it is not easy to identify gaps in our own empathy skills. However, if there are deficiencies, they will show up in the problems they cause. This self-assessment exercise is designed to help identify them.


Fill in the empathy part of the attached questionnaire (PDF format).

How to improve your empathy skills

To enhance your empathy skills, practise one of these suggestions at a time. When you feel you have reached an improved level of skill – perhaps after a day, or a week, depending on how intensively you practise – move on to the next.

Notice visual clues

You already have the unconscious ability to read another person’s emotional state from subtle changes in their expression, their movements, their posture, their breathing, and changes in skin colour and muscle tension. You can enhance this ability by consciously paying attention to these changes. For example, if someone is about to cry but trying not to, a common early warning signal is that their face will go paler while their nose goes red.

Notice voice changes

In the same way, a person’s voice tone, pitch, volume and tempo can tell you a lot about their emotional state. The more you practise listening not just to the words that people say but to the tonal qualities of their voices, the more information about their emotions you will pick up.

Notice indicator words

The type of words that people use (as distinct from the content of what they are saying) give a lot of information about what they are feeling. For example, if a person uses words such as ‘ought, must, have to, need to’, this suggests they feel compelled to do things that they don’t want to. If they use ‘can’t’ a lot, they may feel powerless.

Clues showing absence of emotion

If a person uses a lot of dry, abstract words that don’t refer to what you can see, hear or touch, if they speak in a flat monotone, and if their habitual posture displays a tendancy to lean back, they are probably not very in touch with their feelings and distrust emotions as a source of information.

Notice the images their words evoke

What kind of pictures are conjured up in your mind by the words another person chooses? What kind of metaphors do they use? Is their choice of words positive and empowering or upsetting and draining? Words are clues to their emotional state and what’s really on their mind.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

Briefly imagine that you are the other person. See things as they see them, stand as they stand, talk as they would talk, breathe as they breathe. Imagine how things look from their point of view and how the situation would feel from their perspective.

Key tip

Pay attention, particularly to changes in response to something you’ve said or done.

Notice your own feelings in response

Sometimes we may seem to get a feeling from someone. If this is not a projection of your own feelings, it could be something that we have unconsciously picked up about how they are feeling.

Monitoring your progress

As you continue to brush up your empathy skills, you should notice an improvement in your working relationships. You may also find that you become more interested in your colleagues as people and that your social life improves.

Feedback from your appraisals or 360° assessments should provide some more objective confirmation.