Training Empathy with the VennLeader

Training Empathy

Inter-Cultural Skills, Leadership

Empathy is a common expectation in nearly every industry yet developing empathy is often abandoned for lack of know-how.  Research conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond reveals that not only is possible to improve empathy, it’s not all that difficult.   Training Empathy is an option.

Photo Credit: Burning Man 2017.  That’s all I can find…

“the ability to walk in another’s shoes”


Empathy is “the ability to walk in another’s shoes” and take the perspective of another person. Along with elements of self-awareness, handling relationships, managing feelings, and motivation, empathy forms one part of Emotional Intelligence (Ionnidou & Konstantikaki, 2008).

According to the paper, empathy contains two distinct components: a cognitive component and an emotional component. The first is, perspective-taking: Empathy’s cognitive component Important to the process of developing empathy is the ability to understand how other people may be affected by a situation, as well as understanding that there may be other perspectives to a situation (Galinksy & Moskowitz, 2000). While the second is, compassion: Empathy’s emotional component Empathy also has an affective component, in that an individual often feels compassion for another and becomes motivated to understand that person in a new way (Galinksy & Moskowitz, 2000).


5 ways of training empathy and developing empathy in your team


In order to develop empathy in ourselves and others, our compassion and perspective taking switches have to be switched on, or activated.  The researchers give five recommendations of methods to activate empathy.  While their emphasis is on students in the classroom, I have shifted the orientation to the workplace for the purpose of this post.

  1. Give students experiential opportunities for building empathy.
  2. Incorporate empathy into students’ reflection.
  3. Teach the empathy toolbox.
  4. Assess and reimagine classroom culture and design.
  5. Add empathy to your learning objectives and graded coursework.

1. Facilitate experiential opportunities for training empathy.

  • Observe the emotional experiences of others. The importance of this cannot be understated or over emphasized.  The difficulty where with adult learners is the emotional and perceptual barriers that disallow the learner from fully experiencing and processing their own emotions, let alone the way they perceive the other person’s.  As children we can hold up a flash card with a sad, happy, or angry face and ask the child-learner, “how does this person feel?”  To an adult learner this would be condescending and a waste of time.   The adult learner / employee / team member must first have an understanding of their own emotions and then be given the safety and freedom to explore the emotions of others.  Note: many adult learners and members of the workforce tell me during workshops that, “personal feelings and emotions have no place at work and should be left at home.”  First, that’s simply not possible.  Our emotions go with us, everywhere we go.  Second, if we truly want to develop an emotionally intelligent and empathetic workforce we are obligated to foster environments where each employee / team member feels safe and compelled to learn.
  • Being given more responsibility. When people are given the opportunity to see themselves as responsible for the emotions of others, empathy is activated.
  • Learning more about the people around them, particularly people they wouldn’t normally associate with. Experiencing cultures different than our own activates empathy.  From my personal experience as a trainer of cultural awareness and diversity this is initially on the cognitive level as a member of one group works toward ethnorelative understanding of the other (see more in this post).  However, as true and authentic relations grow between the members of the groups a transition from the cognitive, perspective taking component is gradually overtaken by the emotional, compassion component.
  • Discovering a personal connection with others. As I mentioned above, establishing genuine and authentic connection with others is the key to both transcending toward an ethorelative understanding and compassionate, empathetic relationships.  This can only be accomplished in a work environment that fosters and enables the emotional safety required to activate empathy.
  • Experiencing a challenge to their previous thoughts about a situation. One of my favorite expressions is, “just outside of our comfort zone is where the magic happens.”  We must experience cognitive dissonance in order to grow and learn emotionally.  Our values must be challenged in order to truly commit to them and understand their meaning in our life.  Live beyond your comfort zone!


2. Incorporate empathy into [learners’] reflection.

It’s commonly understood that we have to have time and space to reflect in order to learn – but that’s not good enough.  We have to be given the time, space, freedom, and safety to deeply and emotionally reflect in order to develop our empathy and emotional intelligence.  The adult learner is often uncomfortable when put on the spot with the question, “so… how did that make you feel…?”  But truth be told, that is precisely what they need in order to grow empathy and be a more emotionally intelligent team member.  As empathy trainers we need to be intentional about the reflective opportunities and expectations given to an adult learner.  The Zeigarnik effect and Meta-Cognition are tools that can be used to connect an adult learner with an experience from this moment to a realization in the future.  Trainers can leverage this and the facilitative transformation model discussed elsewhere on this site to create opportunities for reflective, safe learning opportunities.

3. Training empathy begins with the “Empathy Tool Box”

Leaders and trainers need to be living examples of behaviors the rest of the team should emulate.  One method of doing this is by modeling and training what the researchers dubbed as, ‘the empathy toolbox’. This is a set of skills to have the students consider and actively develop through exercises and real life events that the subsequently reflected upon that are collectively known as the ‘empathy toolbox’. These are:

4. Assess and reimagine learning environment culture and design.

I like to arrange learning environments into small groups instead of the traditional classroom or even the more progressive U-Shape. These learning environments tend to put emphasis on the trainer and the media instead of fellow participants. Even the U-shape, which has long been viewed as the collaborative preference places a barrier and safety zone between participants and limits the small group interaction which fosters a safer learning environment.  By grouping learners into small teams the trainer places the emphasis on the individual and their fellow learners – where ownership of learning actually resides.

5. Add empathy to the learning objectives/outcomes.

While attending the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) we were continuously evaluated by our small group leaders (SGLs) on our Interpersonal Skills using the Interpersonal Skills Development Evaluation.  This tool gave the instructors the ability to objectively evaluate our ability to interact with others.  Another way I’ve seen it measured is in the use of 360-assesments where seniors, peers ,and subordinates are given the opportunity to evaluate an individual on various factors, often including inter-personal skills.  Much like the ol’ report card from elementary school, did you play well others?


Empathy and emotional intelligence are things we can improve but it won’t just happen.  We must be intentional and meaningful in our efforts and we absolutely must create a space and opportunity where team members feel safe to learn and grow.