Developing Relationships is one of five essential practices for Values Based Leaders. While leadership always starts with self – with understanding yourself and developing yourself – the ultimate outcome is the positive impact you can have on others. That impact happens through relationships. In our Values Based Leadership model, we have identified the ability to empathize with others as one of the most important behaviors to build trust and develop deep and impactful relationships.

“Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly…”

– Jamil Zaki

While this article was written in 2019, its relevance is felt even more strongly now given what 2020 has wrought. Managing stress, forging deeper connections with others, and building resilience – what if increasing our empathy holds the key to these necessary skills?

Are you an empathetic person?

Empathy is often described as a fixed, or hard-wired, characteristic – either you’re an empathetic person or you’re not. It is true that there is some genetic connection to empathy. Research has shown a genetic link to the levels of hormones we produce like oxytocin, which appears to be directly linked to empathy. But new research is also showing that it is possible to grow your capacity for empathy. Intentional practice is effective in building empathy just as it is with other skills. Not only can we take steps to practice empathy, but researchers are also finding that cultivating empathy actually creates measurable changes in our brains.

Jamil Zaki, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, is the author of War for Kindness, Building Empathy in a Fractured World. In his book, he shares the research behind building empathy and likens the practice opportunity to an “empathy gym.” Zaki shares some of the things that reduce our tendency to be empathetic, for example:

You may avoid empathizing if you believe it will be painful. You may experience this as the temptation to cross the street or walk another way when you see someone in need, or your local pet rescue group with pets for adoption. We don’t want to experience the pain of imagining ourselves in their shoes, and we don’t wish to be faced with a choice of whether to take action.

Stress reduces empathy. At the very moment where empathy may be needed most, our capacity to access it is reduced.

Having awareness of these human tendencies allows us to notice them more readily – to be aware of our desire to cross the street, or to recognize how our state of stress might be impacting our response to a situation. Awareness gives us the ability to make a conscious choice – to pause and choose the action and impact we wish to have.

Zaki also shares some of the activities that have shown to increase levels of empathy, including the power of hearing others’ stories. The power of storytelling has been well-documented, and Zaki’s work shows that our openness to hearing those stories, and to witnessing the experiences of others, has a direct impact on our empathy. Actors, and even those who have had brief experiences playing a role, can show higher levels of empathy. Reading fiction about other people’s lives has a similar effect. And while anonymous use of technology, as sometimes occurs on social media, can decrease empathy, experiments using virtual reality to help people experience someone else’s reality have shown a high impact to empathy.

2020: An empathy revelation

I believe that we’ve seen many of Zaki’s conclusions in action this year. In conversations across workplaces, neighborhoods, and community groups, there’s been a different conversation happening about the impact of race in our country. The content of those conversations is not new – we have heard stories of the discrimination and brutality that our black and brown neighbors have experienced for many years. But the conversations that I’ve been in this year have a very different tone. I have heard a genuine empathetic response that gives me new hope about our future.

InnerWill Board Member, Chris Yates, recently challenged us to consider what it was that changed in us when we saw the brutal murder of George Floyd played over and over on the news earlier this year. It’s a question I continue to reflect on – both as a white woman and a leadership facilitator, and I believe there is a strong connection to empathy. Whether it was the look on the face of the police officer using his knee to choke off another human being’s air supply while staring blankly into the camera, the complacency of the other officers around him, or the cries of a dying man calling for his mother – that video put us in the midst of a story that we could not turn away from, no matter how painful.

Brave black Americans have asked us not to turn away for decades. From Frederick Douglas to Maya Angelou to Black psychologist Kenneth B. Clark – who drafted the social sciences statement that was appended to the Brown Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. Clark urged white people to confront psychological blockages to “transcend the barriers of their own minds,” and to listen with their hearts to the suffering of black people in America. His words ring as true today as they did in the 1960s.

We know that we will be tempted to turn away to avoid pain associated with empathy. How can we continue to build our levels of empathy for all of our neighbors? As leaders, how do we leverage this empathy and create action?

What step will you take to bring more empathy to your team, your organization, and your community?


Sharon Amoss

Sharon Amoss

Sharon’s approach to leadership is centered on encouraging others to discover and connect with their most true, authentic selves. She is guided by personal core values of justice, compassion, and growth, and motivated by a vision of a better and wiser world where each of us are free to express and contribute our unique gifts. She seeks to build inclusive communities across all facets of her work and life.

close slider

    Subscribe to the InnerWill email for inspirational stories and tips on how to build engagement, trust, and success at work and beyond – delivered right to your inbox every Monday morning!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.