Empathy First…Influence Next

How often have you heard this?  “Wow, that person just gets me. They’re good with people. They really know how to build rapport. They’re so responsive. We’re on the same wavelength!”  Who pops into your mind? Well, you’re describing someone who has empathy…and lots of it!  More importantly, this person has the key aptitude for leadership and influential power.

Empathy has gotten a bad wrap recently. Ever since the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation, empathy has been pegged as a sort of liability.  At best, empathy is a soft power and at worst, empathy is an impediment to decisive leadership.  The fact is, empathy is the exact opposite. Empathy is a key aptitiude of leadership.  Developing this capacity will help organizers be the best they can be.

By definition, empathy is the “intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”  In other words, only by having empathy can can one effectively recognize the mental or emotional state of another.  Having this comprehension is kind of like becoming the Jedi Master. Feel the person, feel the force. This is key to moving someone.  Understanding people at a deep level, motivating them in order to mobilize action–this is the core of organizing.


This is blog is part of a series going deeper into the 5 practices of the EmpoweredShift (read here).  The dynamic tension between Anger and Apathy is one of the key 5 practices of motivating and mobilizing people. While there are many words that make up anger, one of the key ones is empathy. One of the challenges of any grassroots organizer is APATHY.  In order to move past apathy, it is important to understand it. That’s why the discussion on empathy is so important. After all, empathy is the opposite of apathy.  If you can define the distinction–empathy–then you will master apathy.  We either master empathy…or we allow apathy to master us.

In recent years, the field of emotional intelligence has exploded. I believe that empathy was the placeholder for what we now call emotional intelligence. Empathy–from the lens of motivation and mobilization–is all about the identification, recognition, and deep understanding of another’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Empathy is a necessary pre-condition for having influence or creating an impact on another. Without this comprehension into another, people are flailing blindly in the dark.  Messages don’t stick. Calls to action ring hollow. Relationships are anemic.

An organizer can not even begin to influence someone else if they can’t recognize or respond to what another person is thinking, feeling, or doing.  Especially if that person is frozen in apathy. What is really going on? There are so many shades of apathy that only one with strong empathic aptitude can decipher the situation.

How does one develop empathy as an aptitude? Here are just a few thoughts (click here to take a deeper dive):

  • Empathy is Inquiry.  Develop the art of listening for meaning. Stay curious. Ask questions that lead to deeper meaning.
  • Empathy is not just about words and language.  Practice mirroring someone. This requires you to watch for verbal cues and for you to reflect back that emotion or attitude.
  • Empathy is about authentic connection.  Have a conversation where you are matching someone energy level. Let them lead, but follow with authenticity..
  • Empathy is about context. Having situational awareness allows you to move gracefully between the dance of communication. What is their intention? What are the dynamics at play? What’s the emotional temperature of this room?
  • Empathy is also about inward reflection. Having self-awareness helps one to manage how they can exert influence. Moving from intention, now you must measure the impact. What is the impact on me? What am I feeling now?

How can techniques and methods in building the capacity for empathy break through apathy?

Do you want strategies to apply empathy to your life? Do you want to integrate empathy into your work? Do you want more materials and resources on empathy?

 If so, then click here (click here to take a deeper dive).

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