ChandramowlyGuest Author

Empathy as Relationship Builder

By Chandramowly

By attuning to non-verbal emotional clues of people and responding with empathy, Leaders make connections, build consensus, develop teams, relationships says M R CHANDRAMOWLY.

Sigmund Freud said “Mortals can keep no secret. If their lips are silent, they gossip with their fingers; betrayal forces its way through every pore”.

Emotions are mostly expressed through clues than in words. When you notice fidgeting of a listener it indicates disinterest. If you are able to pick up such emotional clues like tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, you can understand the concealed true feelings and life in the business world.

Empathy is the ability to understand how others perceive situations and seeing things from the value and belief system of others. The crucial element of empathy is the capability to fully immerse oneself in other’s view point and yet be able to remain wholly apart.

Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard psychologist has devised a test on empathy, the PONS (Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity). In this test, they play recordings of emotional talks of various situations. With the operating electronic filters, the listener can hear the emotions but not make out the words. Candidates are asked to identify if the man was talking about divorce or arguing with subordinate, thus differentiating anger with irritation. The research data shows that the scores did not differ by race, sex or educational background indicating the accuracy of identifying the ability to grasp the other person’s perspective. The benefits are being able to read the feelings from non-verbal clues for getting adjusted for better sensitivity and empathy.

Most of us spend 70 per cent of the day in communicating and 45 per cent of that time listening. We all know what it means to really listen. It is truly understanding and accepting the other person. Empathy is like walking a mile in another person’s moccasins. To be able to sense feelings of others, we must be capable of sensing those of our own.

When I was heading HR of an IT company, the new CEO, in his own style wanted to bring about a ‘practical’ team building of General Mangers. He shifted us to new cabins which were rebuilt nearer to his chambers, moving us away from individual functional groups. His intension was to ensure all the functional heads see each other regularly. More than this, he wanted to bring the two GMs together, who were not getting along well with each other. Few weeks later, we noted that their relationship worsened more after this new set up. I spoke to both of them separately to highlight the seriousness and consequences of their behaviour. After repeated attempts I could find out the reason. It was a big shock and surprise to me. One of them did not respond to the morning greetings of the other. The

person who greeted and did not get the response, thought this is the end of his relationship with the other one. I told the other person the fact that it was unwitting act and that he just did not notice the waving of the greeting hand in an unmindful state. It opened a window of dialogue between them. After the storm and norm they realised the importance of eye contact and courtesy of exchanging greetings.


Sensing others’ perspective

If you want to get to know another person, you need to be empathic, tolerant and genuinely concerned about his/her welfare. If one is not really concerned about the best interests of a person better not to pretend to be. The key element of empathy is reflecting to what the facial expression conveys. A Leader’s effortless tuning to reciprocate posture, movement and facial expressions of others is the behavioural indicator of empathy. Such leaders are seen as more accepting and less critical or judgmental.



A Leader with this competency, understand the sense of teams, their intensions and tensions, needs and deeds, what they value and thus know what motivates them. Empathy is a positive emotion which helps you to know what a person believes, why and what he/she could do in a situation.

Parents are primary teachers of Empathy. If they discourage aggression and are sharing, caring and empathic themselves they are more likely to produce altruistic children (Kohn, 1988). Altruism depends first on your liking and accepting others, second on your being concerned for other’s welfare, and third on your feelings responsible for helping others in need (E.Staub). Research has documented that a warm, friendly group or environment encourages more helping responses than a cold, suspicious, punitive situation. The easy way to develop emotional empathy is to observe and spend more time with people who are considerate and generous to others.


Building relationships

Why are so many relationships unhappy? Sydney Jourard and Ted Landsman (1980) say, a healthy relationship has (1) Open, honest communication (2) Reasonable expectations or demands of each other (3) Concern about the other’s well being and (4) Freedom for both to be themselves – which are empathic attitudes.

What interferes with health relationship? Hamachek (1982) says, (1) We underestimate the changes we need to make but push too hard other people to change (2) Not liking ourselves is unusually associated with not liking other people (3) Shyness inhibits closeness and intimacy with others and (4) Playing deceptive, self-serving “games” will drive others away. What can be done about these barriers of empathy?


Games people play

Eric Berne (1964) contends that three undesirable needs motivate the ‘games’ we play with other people which actually interfere with friendship and closeness. The destructive needs are (1) Expressing hostility or putdowns towards others, (2) Expressing self-hatred or self-criticism (3) Ego-boosting by exaggerating one’s assets or someone else’s faults. It is an unconscious, mean and selfish ‘game’ we put on designed by the ‘child’ in us. Suppose you volunteer to help a working colleague to solve his toughest office problem. If there is a part of you (child) which unintentionally makes the solution more difficult or confuse him than it needs to be, then you are probably playing a game. You are not really helping although you may consciously think, that is your motive. When a friendly person says “I really like you”, what he could be hinting is “Notice how wonderful I am”. “You are really great” means “Now, like me and say ‘you too’”. If one says “Women are so emotional” it means “we males are superior”.


Dance of deception

Self-deception is another factor interfering with our relationship with others. Lerner’s book ‘The Dance of Deception’ describes many ways of avoiding truth and their consequences. Excuses are an excellent example of deception. We give explanations when we have goofed, to make us look as good as possible under the circumstances. “I didn’t do it”, “I did it but it’s not so bad”, “I didn’t think it was serious” is what we say when we fail to be helpful. Excuses are meant to say “I am better or more able than you might think, based on what you just saw me do”.

Empathy enhancement is possible if we avoid inaccurate reflection while responding to others. Our statements like ‘You will feel better tomorrow’ or ‘the real problem is somewhere else’ indicates ‘I know better than you’ response. An executive approaches you as a Leader and shares with you his concern about work pressure. If you respond by saying ‘Oh, everyone has this pressure, don’t worry about it’, it is like saying “Don’t talk to me about it any more”. Empathy, the Leadership competency can be developed by learning its five sub-sets; (1) Sensing and understanding the feelings and expectations of others, (2) Recognising strengths and developmental needs of others to coach and boost their abilities, (3) Grasp a customer’s perspective with a service orientation, (4) Relate well to people of varied background converting diversity into opportunity and (5) Reading the social and political currents accurately to develop sound networking. Empathic response is not easy to learn, but is possible. Competencies can be practiced and learnt though no one can master all the knowledge and life experience involved.

“There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behoves all of us not to talk about the rest of us.”


M. R. Chandramowly is a MRCTrainer and HR Solutions Facilitator. A Graduate in Science and a Post Graduate in Literature/Anthropology he has received course graduation from Covey Leadership, Competency Management Accreditation from SMR Inc, VOICES Certification from Lominger Inc, ‘Human Values’ from IIM Calcutta and ‘Silva Mind control’ from Australian Business Programs. Mowly, with 25 years of HR professional experience worked with organizations like MICO Bosch, PSI-Bull. and took to HR training and consulting after his last assignment as Corporate VP – HR for Praxair Group in India. An active contributor in the area of Leadership Competencies and HR Education. Mowly has trained executives of several organizations and published articles, presented theme papers in national and international HR conferences.

A visiting faculty teaching Business Ethics for Post Graduate HR, Mowly served as secretary of National HRD Network and facilitated HR workshops for National Institute of Personnel Management and Bangalore HR Summit. He is working on synthesizing eastern wisdom with western leadership competencies developing a learning module ‘Value Based Competencies’. The author is an HR Expert and can be reached at

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