A Cold Person’s Guide to Building Empathy

Throughout my career, I have worked with hundreds of leaders and have found a common theme. Though many do well, some work way too hard for the same results. The amount of pressure they apply isn’t equal to the output. Working hard is overrated. Everyone works hard. What matters most is good decision-making and leverage. 

The one way to build

When someone shares good news, there are different ways to respond. Only one builds relationships.

When you are truly interested in the person and the topic, you have no problem relating. You have emotional alignment with your counterpart. Your emotions agree and are amplified. This is how you build.

Sometimes, though you are interested, the conversation triggers a memory and you hijack the conversation to another topic.

And other times, who you’re speaking with is just damn boring. You don’t click. You nod along, obviously showing no interest, and let the conversation die.

It may feel manipulative at first, but lean towards amplification of emotion. It gives you a thirst for more. Positivity breeds positivity. Finding ways to agree and amplify the experience instills trust and builds the relationship.

How to show empathy

Here is a primer in showing empathy. If delivered well, you can keep the conversation going for a long time without saying much. You also let your counterpart express themselves while you do the exercise of feeling what they feel.

Be a mirror

Mirroring helps clarify. Most briefly elaborate, but some will ramble. Good. You are allowing the other person to express themselves and their emotions. 

To mirror, repeat back their last 1-3 words as a question.

Mirroring helps clarify, letting the other person elaborate and express emotion. To mirror, repeat back their last 1-3 words as a question.

Her: “I ran my first marathon!”

You: “Your first marathon?”

Her: “Yes! I’ve been training for 6 months and…”

Label their emotions

When you label the other person’s desires and emotions it breaks down the walls. Emotions are honesty. The emotions behind events is why they are telling you about it. This is how you start practicing empathy. Try to feel what you think they feel, then lay it out on the table.

To label, assume their emotion or what they want, then say it tentatively.

To label, assume their emotion, desire, or need. Then say it *tentatively*:

You: “It sounds like you are excited about finally running that marathon.”

Her: “Yes, I never thought I would be able to do it.”

You: “Never be able to do it?” (mirror again)

Her: “Growing up, I never…”

Other ways to label:

  • “It seems like you feel confident about…”
  • “It sounds like that was hurtful to you.”
  • “It seems/sounds like… [insert emotion/desire/need].”

If you’re wrong, you’ll get corrected and that person will continue to elaborate. This is why you say it tentatively; you’re not sure. Follow this up with more mirroring, then label again.

This back and forth of clarifying emotions builds trust and deepens the connection.

Why do this? It builds trust and you learn more about your people. You gain access to other people and their strengths only after you’ve built trust. It doesn’t come naturally to most people. Like all things, it takes practice. In short, it makes you a more effective leader. 

You care about effectiveness

There are two type of leaders.

There are leaders who genuinely care about the people who they work with and their personal lives. If this is you, you have already instilled trust with your team. These techniques will help you be more effective in engaging with them and help you avoid the common traps that turn others off.

The other type of leader is the someone who doesn’t really care about what your co-worker did over the weekend. For those people, you care about results, status, recognition, money, or whatever, just not about Jenny’s arts and crafts project or Barb’s weekend shopping. This will help you by a wider margin because you have larger gaps of trust to fill. You already get the important things done, but instead with the willful effort and unlocked creativity of others. This can help you be more effective at building relationships so people are more open to feedback, coaching, and sharing ideas.

The smartest in their careers use well-applied leverage to get results. Some people have capital. Some people use code. Some people use media. As a leader, you use other people and their strengths as leverage. You don’t have access to that leverage or discretionary effort without trust.

Some ideas from:
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

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