People - Top Tips - Empathy



This document is designed as a quick reference guide to empathy.

This will enable you to gain knowledge of a particular skill, task or process.

This means you can quickly find the key information that you need and refer to it on an ongoing basis whenever you need to refresh your knowledge.



Empathy is commonly defined as feeling or expressing emotion for another.

Since the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively define another's mode of thought and mood.

People - Top Tips - Empathy

What you need to know

Empathy is about being sensitive to the pressures and issues that surround an employee, and helping them to sort matters out for themselves. This is often referred to as counselling, although that word is also used in some companies to mean the first stage in a disciplinary process when an individual’s performance is causing concern. However, managing with empathy is about helping people to deal with a problem – often of a personal nature - before it affects their job performance enough for disciplinary action.


It is about:

     Helping people to take ownership and solve their own problems.

     Listening sympathetically to people’s problems

     Offering help, support and understanding.

     Assisting people to come to their own decisions about problems.

     Reducing tension and anxiety - they may be worried about the effect on their work.


It is not about solving people’s problems for them!

People - Top Tips - Empathy

What you need to know

The discussion process

Often you won’t get a chance to prepare for this kind of discussion; the first you know about it is when a colleague says ‘Have you got a minute?’ If this happens, find a quiet place and ensure that you won’t be interrupted; if necessary consider asking the person if it can wait a few minutes while you find such a place. Bear in mind that the other person may have had to build up courage to approach you in the first place, so keep delays to a minimum.

Sometimes you may notice changes in the behaviour or performance of a colleague, which may alert you to the possibility that there is a problem, and you may choose to raise it with them; ‘I’ve noticed you don’t seem yourself this week. Is there anything I can do to help?’

The conversation itself breaks down into four stages, reflecting the skills you will need:


During this stage your role is to create the right mood - this should be an open and supportive environment - to listen, and to gently draw out the relevant facts.

     Reassure your colleague that the discussion is totally confidential – and keep it so.

     Be sensitive to their emotional state – this may show itself in agitated body language, or faster or louder speech.

     Be patient – they may take time to get to the point.

     Help them to talk and bring out the relevant facts of the issue

     Concentrate on listening and show you are doing so, with plenty of eye contact, nods, appropriate facial expressions, and ‘mmms’ and ‘uh-huhs’.

     Question sensitively and don’t probe unnecessarily – you are not there to find out all the juicy facts of a crisis.

     Don’t judge or criticise, even if what you hear shocks you, or you disagree with it.

     Set aside your own personal prejudices and views.

     Avoid asking a direct ‘Why?’ as this may make the person defensive; instead use a question such as ‘What makes you think that?’

     Show empathy: ‘That must have upset you a lot’ or ‘I see why you feel like that’.

     Let the other person do most of the talking.



During this stage your role is to summarise and reflect back what the person has told you, so that they can clarify the issue in their own mind, and you can understand what this is.

     Focus on what you believe to be the key issues.

     Summarise by picking up these key issues and putting them in a brief and logical sequence in your own words.

     Reflect your summary back: ‘So what I’m hearing is………….., am I right?’

     Be prepared for the person to change the content or emphasis of your summary; this is part of helping them to get it straight in their own mind.

     Continue to show empathy: ‘….and I can see why this has made you feel so angry’.

     Reflect back also the unspoken feelings and emotions that you see.

     Again, let the other person do most of the talking.

     If the other person makes vague statements or generalisations such as ‘everyone’ or ‘always’, try asking ‘everyone?’ or ‘always?’ to clarify.





Having come to an understanding of what the issue is about, you now need to help the person explore the options available to them.

     Help the other person to take ownership and realise that it is their issue to resolve by using ‘You’ questions.

     Use questions like ‘So what do you think you can do about it?’ and ‘How could you……?’

     If you are asked for advice, turn it round: ‘What have you already done / thought of?’

     Encourage them to seek alternatives: ‘What else could you do?’

     Help them by asking questions like ‘What would happen if you…?

     Encourage them to think through what would and could happen if they put their ideas into action.

     Help them to come to their own decision about what they should do.



When the other person has run out of ideas, help them to continue by making suggestions of your own, but be careful not to impose your answers on them – after all, your solution may not work and you will then get the blame.

     Put your suggestions as questions like “Have you thought of……?”

     Offer relevant factual information but continue to hold back your own opinions and views.

     Consider whether to recommend a specialist source of advice, such as a doctor, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, solicitor, bank manager, etc.

     Use questions like: ‘How will you do…...?’ and ‘By when could you do…….?’ to help the other person move into taking action.

     You will not always need to agree an action plan, as it is up to the other person whether they do anything as a result of the discussion – they may feel a lot better just for talking about it.

     Finally, offer to be there if the person wants to talk it through at a later date.



Check with the person at a suitable time later on by making a confidential and non-threatening enquiry: ‘How did you get on with…..?’ or ‘Did you ever sort out.….?’

     Be prepared for another discussion.

     At all times, maintain confidentiality.



There may be occasions when the need to provide confidentiality for the individual conflicts with the needs of the company, such as if a team member is undecided what they should do about a breach of security by a colleague.

Some ways around this are:

     Encourage them to take advice from a specialist. In the example above this may be a member of the security department, in other cases the specialist may be a member of the personnel department or an external specialist as mentioned above.

     Help the person come to their own decision as you would for any other topic; very often they will know what the ‘right’ answer is, but need help to change ‘knowing’ into ‘doing’. They may need reassurance that – for example – their own identity need not be revealed.

     If they cannot or will not take the steps above, they may be trying to pass the problem to you. Make them aware that they have left you no alternative but to take the appropriate action, such as contacting security department, as it is an obligation of your job. If you are able to keep their name out of it, this will not breach confidentiality.