How to Use Empathy to Solve Your Toughest Problems

19.07.2020 |

Episode #10 of the course Ten essential traits for today’s leaders by Frank McKinley


Welcome to Lesson Ten!

Last time we talked about persuasion. Today we’ll learn how empathy helps you see solutions that others miss.


The Sympathy Trap

It’s easy to confuse empathy with sympathy. Here’s what they have in common: feelings, understanding, responding.

There is one big difference between sympathy and empathy: distance.

What do I mean by that? When you’re sympathetic, you cry with your friend. When you’re empathetic, you step into their shoes. Sympathy holds hands. Empathy lends a hand.

When you’re facing an impossible problem, the difference is huge.


Three Ways to Be More Empathetic Today

Just like persuasion, empathy isn’t magic. Let’s lift the curtain and see how empathy works.

Step One: Listen well. You start by putting away distractions. Noise. Technology. Interruptions. The quieter and more private, the better.

Here’s what you’ll listen for:

Words. What are they saying? What words are they choosing? What picture do those words paint?

Voice. How loud are they talking? What emotions do you hear?

Body language. What do their facial expressions tell you? How’s their posture? Are they making eye contact or staring into space?

These components provide context for the situation. Consider them all and you’ll see what’s obvious and hidden.

Step Two: Imagine being in their shoes. You can do this two ways.

First, put yourself in their situation. How would you feel based on what you know? What would you want to do?

Second, step away and see the situation more objectively. If you were giving advice to a friend, what would you recommend?

Step Three: Identify with them. Reflect what they’re saying back to them: “Yes, I’d feel the same way if that happened to me!”, “Wow, that must be painful!”, “I’d be asking the same questions you are.”

Make sure you understand. Don’t assume. If you’re not sure, ask. Assure them you’re on their side. When they trust you, they’ll follow your advice.

Step Four: Offer suggestions. You can’t offer meaningful suggestions until you know what’s going on. The person who’s hurting won’t trust you if you don’t show you care first. Meaningful suggestions will: lead them where they want to go, show them how to get what they want, dismantle the roadblocks that are stopping them now.

Make it this far and everyone can win. You win because you solved the problem. They win because they can move past this, grow, and excel. The organization wins because everyone is buying into the mission.

Empathy makes you a better leader, and a better person, too.


Do This Now

Pick a problem you’re facing with a team member. Arrange a time when you can listen to their side of the story. Withhold all judgment, at least verbally. After you’ve heard them, identified with their feelings, and gained some context, offer a helpful suggestion. Assure them you want them to succeed and that your door is open.


The Recap

You learned ten powerful qualities every leader needs in today’s world. Here’s a one-sentence summary of each:

• Be honest, even when it hurts.

• Communicate simply and clearly.

• Creativity is just focused thinking.

• You’re more productive when you plan tomorrow today.

• Laugh often and stress won’t harm you.

• You strengthen your intuition with meaningful experience.

• Control yourself and you control your life.

• Positive belief is essential to high achievement.

• Become a trusted advisor and you’ll be persuasive.

• Empathy helps you solve problems down to the core.

The best way to strengthen these traits in yourself is to pick one to focus on each week. Challenge yourself to learn more and do more. You might stumble along the way, but over time you’ll be amazed how natural these traits become.

Congratulations! You now have everything you need to become the leader you’ve always wanted to be.

Lead well,



Recommended book

Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership by Michael Ventura


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