Expanding Empathy: Listen, Ask, Engage

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Could empathy be the key performance indicator organizations are missing? With a variety of performance indicators used throughout the business world, one marker rarely fits all. However, there is one performance indicator that could be used by every person within every firm in every country across the globe. In his book, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper when They Create Widespread Empathy, Dev Patnaik, a growth strategist, suggests that “for many of the world’s greatest companies, [empathy is] an ever-present but rarely talked-about engine for growth.” Patnaik further claims that “the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.”

According to Oxford’s Lexico Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” As it relates to business, empathy is also a tool for growth. Beyond helping a company grow, empathy has been coined the “secret to a high salary” by Aarti Ramaswami, professor and academic director at ESSEC Global MBA. In his research, Ramaswami has found that empathy helps individuals connect with more people, allowing them to access more resources and ultimately progress faster within their company. Those seeking to improve their empathy can do so by listening attentively to others, asking sincere questions, and engaging in the lives of those around them.


Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., is an empathy advisor, author, and former Cambridge University professor. In his article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” Krznaric claims, “There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist.” These traits are radical listening and vulnerability in conversations. Radical listening includes attentively trying to find the needs and emotions of the speaker. Vulnerability entails opening up about personal feelings. Combining these traits, Krznaric says, “Empathy is a two-way street that… is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.” In order to reap the benefits of empathy, individuals must first learn to attentively listen to others to foster mutual understanding.


U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger shared in a Ted Talk how asking questions helped her win the congressional election in her Virginia district. Her district had never before elected a woman and hadn’t elected someone of her political party in 50 years. During her campaign, she traveled up and down her district, visiting a diverse group of people and asking questions such as, “what’s going on in your life?” and “what concerns you most?” Asking questions allowed Spanberger to understand the needs of her constituents, ultimately gain their support, and win the election. Despite perceived differences, asking questions enables individuals to empathize with a wide range of people and improve the breadth of their empathy.


Returning to Krznaric’s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” habit number three is to “try another person’s life.” He offers examples, which include “attending the services of faiths different from your own” and “volunteering in a developing country.” Experiencing the activities that make another person who they are, helps individuals relate to other’s actions, emotions, and concerns. This will increase empathy for others as it fosters not only awareness, but a deep understanding of others.


Each of the above suggestions reflect the principle of expanding focus to include others. As Patnaik put it in his book, Wired to Care, empathy is “the ability to step outside of yourself and see the world as other people.” From improving an individual’s paygrade and career success to growing an entire company, there are many reasons to develop empathy both individually and organization-wide. Attentively listening, asking sincere questions, and engaging in others’ lives are all impactful ways to increase empathy and reap the benefits of connecting with people in a more personal and meaningful way.

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