Empathy Is a Muscle

Some people seem to be naturals at communicating; they have an easy way of relating to others and conveying interest. Somehow they can just sense how others are feeling and what to say that helps the communication to move along. And some people do, in fact, have a natural way of genuinely connecting with others. This gift is called empathy.

However, while the skills of empathy are easy for some, they are learnable for all of us – but it can take some effort! Just like building muscle at the gym, strengthening the “muscles” of empathy require understanding the challenge, creating a plan and practicing.

Here are some recommended approaches and questions to ask yourself to get started:

  1. Listen for feelings as well as words. Do you watch faces and listen to tone of voice to catch the barely expressed messages? These are the non-verbals – and they are an important key to building empathy? If you tend not to notice them, give it a try!
  2. When you observe a difference between the meaning of the words and the non-verbals, get curious: “Tell me more about that . . . sounds like you’re saying . . . .”
  3. Pay particular attention to indicators of enthusiasm or interest – smiling or an enthusiastic tone of voice. Consider acknowledging these with: “sounds exciting” or something similar so the other person knows that you are paying attention and really “getting” the message.
  4. As you become more skillful, pay attention to non-verbals that suggest the other person is concerned or upset, and respond to those emotions with respectful caring. Say something like, “That sounds hard.”
  5. Notice in yourself what it feels to use your empathy muscles. Who else in your life could use some empathy?
  6. Practice every chance you get to tune into the subtle messages that people convey and respond with empathy, especially in low risk situations like with the clerk at the dry cleaners or the server at the restaurant.

Everyone can become more effective as a communicator by paying attention and expressing interest and empathy to others. When practiced with sincerity, these skills support success at work and at home. Go for it!


For more information on communication skills for leaders, contact Vogel/Glaser & Associates, info@vogelglaser.com or call 410-730-9590. Judy and David have been providing customized executive coaching and organization change consulting services for a combined 60 years.