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3 ways to be empathetic ─ and powerful

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


3 ways to be empathetic ─ and powerful

Don’t blame it on the youth.

We adults – especially those in powerful positions ─ are guilty too.

Even though we’re born with the ability to understand and share others’ emotions, we don’t always practice empathy. 

Worse, some of us point fingers at others, especially the young, complaining about their self-centeredness. Research from the University of Michigan backs this up. College students studied in 2000 were about 40 percent less empathetic than they were 10 years earlier.

Other studies document different empathy deficits.

For example, when you feel powerful or believe you have higher status than others, the empathy network in your brain can become disengaged when you interact with others. (Check out the research study Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network.)

You also may not feel the pain of others if they’re not part of your in-group or of a different race. For example, watching individuals have needles penetrate their cheeks hurts more when the persons share your racial group. (See the research study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulated empathic neural responses.)

Why should you care?

Being empathetic is a valuable skill for individuals at all levels in an organization, especially leaders.

Empathetic people are more easily able to earn the respect of others, which makes them more influential and powerful.

If you’re empathetic, you’re sensitive to others and their needs. You take the time to observe and listen. You start to understand others’ points of view and their states of mind.

This “perspective taking” gives you valuable insights of what others are feeling, thinking and wanting. You’re more considerate in how you work with others. For example, you tend to involve others in developing solutions that work for the better good, rather than just yourself.

Due to their compassion and selflessness, empathetic people actually earn power from others who voluntary give it to them, according to Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

In his newest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Dr. Keltner reviews the science of empathy, and presents his power principles.

He explains that individuals gain and maintain power by focusing on others. As long as they practice actions that “dignify and delight” others they are able to keep their power.

According to Dr. Keltner, these four social practices are empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories.

However, when you feel powerful, you (and your brain) can be seduced and you can start to lose your orientation toward others and your skills that allowed you to gain power. This is the power paradox.

How do you avoid becoming prey to this paradox?

To maintain a strong perspective-taking, you can regularly take these three steps. They can boost your empathy and your power: 

  • Spend time with a variety of people in different situations. In other words, don’t let yourself get into a bubble, an echo chamber or anything else that shields you from others. Isolation and insulation may help you use your time wisely, but they give you a false sense of security. If you separate yourself from diverse individuals, especially those less powerful from you, you’ll make it more difficult to understand them, much less walk in their shoes.
  • Ask questions. When you ask thoughtful questions in a curious, caring manner (not like you’re cross-examining anyone), you show interest and respect. To help you get in the mindset of asking questions that make it a valuable experience for you and others, before you meet with someone ask yourself: What can I learn from them? And what can I learn about them?  
  • Listen and observe carefully. Listening goes hand-in-hand with asking questions. Just make sure you listen carefully to how others answer your questions rather than paying attention to the voices in your head. To avoid being distracted, put away your devices during conversations. Also, take the effort to look around the environment to pick up cues that may give you insights into the world of others. For more tips, check out this helpful Harvard Business Review blog Listening is an overlooked leadership tool.

By practicing these three steps, you can be an empathetic, well-rounded individual.

And last but not least, how often are you looking in the mirror to make sure you’re committed to seeing not just yourself, but others and their points of view too?