Lead with compassion - listen with empathy

Doctor sitting with a patient and explaining the situation

The Collaboration Effect ® is all about connecting relationships, listening actively, and educating judiciously in order to build bridges to negotiate closure. Recently having listened to a presentation by a prominent neuroscientist in the field, following up with him, and conducting additional research, I learned something truly exciting related to compassion and empathy that I want to share with you. We need to lead with compassion and listen with empathy.




I must clarify that I am not a neuroscientist, but I have been working with neuroscientists for 8 years and I am a continuous learner doing research in the application of neuroscience in leadership, collaboration, and conflict resolution. With that in mind, I want to share this information to help you as I know it will help me.  This was new to me, and with many things that I learn and that excite me, I wanted to share this with you. Conceptually I had thought of compassion and empathy as being pretty compatible with one another. Upon additional information, some additional research and confirmation from other sources, I have learned some major differences.


What is empathy?


When engaged with listening actively it is important to summarize, paraphrase, ask open ended questions and empathize.  Most people do not listen effectively. A natural tendency is to provide solutions and share knowledge. It takes conscious thought to not provide solutions and share known information.  A better approach when listening is to ask questions that lead the other party towards a solution found on their own part.  You have to calm the desire to share, be interesting, and demonstrate our own expertise.  

When you are with a friend and they have had something negative happen in their lives, you tend to be empathetic. That is,

you feel their pain.

You share not only with words, but with your tone, your body language, and your facial expressions. You are really there for the other person emotionally.  This is what friends do with and for friends. This clearly demonstrates listening on a very personal level. You listen with empathy to a friend that is hurting.  You take the time to be their for them.


What is compassion?


By comparison, compassion is what we want for example with a professional health provider. No matter how serious the situation you want someone that is

calm, considerate and competent.

You want someone to listen and provide you with what you need medically. You don’t want that person to abandon their training and expertise and begin to agree with you how bad the situation is or what you think needs to be done. You want that person to focus and to take care of you given their ability to listen to you, and take care of your needs.  They have a medical skill set that you don’t. You are counting on them to calmly assess the situation and to take appropriate steps to help you without becoming emotionally involved.

Leaders need to stay focused on the issues, take appropriate action, be being caring and considerate, but help their team members. They need to help the team as a whole and the organization to move forward. If things go bad, you want to have a leader that has developed trust previously and can help each team member and the team to respond in an appropriate way. You want compassion in this situation.


How does the brain process empathy?


When listening to Dr. Terry Wu, a neuroscientist focusing on neuromarketing recently shared in a presentation that when we have physical pain  or emotional pain they both are centered in the anterior insular cortex. The pain that is felt is real. Empathy is indeed a feeling of pain. That is one reason anecdotally you might say, “I feel your pain”.  This is very primal in nature. It occurs naturally. If mom or dad are arguing and children hear the argument, they feel that pain immediately. They want to stop the pain. You have felt it. You know what I am talking about.


How does the brain process compassion?


By comparison, compassion comes from the pre-frontal cortex. It does not come naturally. It has to be learned and cultivated. Medical professionals take courses on compassion, loving-kindness, healthy mind body programs, and similar training. This type of training leads to altruism and collaboration.

Similarly studies on mindfulness with meditation, prayer, reflection and yoga for at least 10 minutes a day have mental and physical impacts on the pre-frontal cortex.  Those that practice mindfulness are calmer, don’t become as reactive when placed in stressful situations, have greater confidence in themselves, and see themselves more positively. This is true even in more stressful times.

By practicing mindfulness, it is possible to become more compassionate with others.  Give this serious thought. Don’t you want to be calmer, confident, and perceived as more competent with others. Taking time to practice mindfulness and take additional training in this area can make a real difference in your life.


When might compassion or empathy be important?


Empathy is very important when listening to a friend with a serious concern. At work

empathy is important when listening actively with others.

 It is important to make sure you understand their situation and to be there for your co-workers or employees. However, as professionals working with one another under trying situations, it is also necessary to stay focused on the problems or concerns professionally.

This is when you need to focus on compassion.  Remain calm.  Be there to connect and listen before offering your own ideas and thoughts. Make sure are affirming where the other person is coming from. 

By remaining calm, being confident that you are there to help, and that you have competency to help, you can make a real difference.

That difference can be positive, helping the other person to sort things out with questions, and leading them to make decisions that are realistic to the situation. As a leader, you need to stay calm, focuses and yet be personable. Share your knowledge as appropriate.


Key take aways from today’s article


As an active listener you need to summarize, paraphrase, ask open ended questions, and empathize. Empathize means feeling someone else’s pain. The pain is real. The pain is clearly indicated in the center of the brain. It does not matter whether the pain is physical and emotional. The brain receives it in the same location in a similar way.  As a friend listen with empathy.

As a leader, lead with compassion using the pre-frontal cortex in the front of the brain. When you lead with compassion you are calm, confident, and competent.  This has to be learned. Take courses in this area and practice mindfulness with meditation, prayer, reflection, or yoga at least 10 minutes a day.  You will feel better, be calmer, and gain confidence in yourself.

About the author

Mike is a mediator, a professional speaker, and an author. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]