Your Intended Message

The Empathy Effect on leadership communication: Dr Helen Riess

December 16, 2021

Empathy is not an inborn trait. It can be taught and learned.

Dr Helen Riess is an empathy researcher at Harvard Medical School and a clinical psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

We examine these aspects about empathy:

  • What is empathy and what is not?
  • Why is empathy critical to effective communication?
  • How might we demonstrate true empathy over fake sympathy?
  • How to guard against empathy overload?
  • How can leaders apply empathy in building their teams?

Dr Helen Riess is the author of the bestselling book, The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience Keys for Transforming how We Live, Love work and connect across Differences.


Dr Helen Riess is the CEO and Founder of Empthetics, a tech ed company that offers online and blended empathy and relationship skills training for healthcare, business and law enforcement.




Dr Riess's TEDX talk "The Power of Empathy" has received more than 650,000 views. 


Excerpts from this interview:

Most of us have probably heard the word, many people probably have their own idea of what they think it is. Please tell us your definition of what Empathy means to you? And most importantly, what it's not.



That is a great opening question, George, because many people have a sense that they know what empathy is. But it's actually more than one thing. It's an umbrella term. Because people often confuse empathy with just being nice or kind.

Empathy is, is involved quite a few brain structures that enable us to perceive the emotions of others. Of course, that means we have to pay attention to the emotional signals, right? So it helps with perception of emotion, it helps with taking the perspective of other people. So it means taking off our own spectacles and putting on the lens that somebody else is wearing to see the world through their eyes.

Empathy involves what's called an effect sharing, which means that when we see somebody in an intense emotion, we actually share that emotion to some degree, because of how our brains map other people's emotions on our own brain structures, which is why when we see somebody really sad and sorrowful, sometimes we get a little misty and teary ourselves, or when we're around people that are just elated and happy it buoys everybody up.

That's called shared aspects or shared emotions. And then empathy works with all of these brain parts to process what other people are thinking and feeling. Which then motivates empathic concern, which is really what gets us to do things to help other people.

And then the output after we feel that concern, is what I call caring compassion, because that's what comes out of us. So empathy is really the input that allows us to perceive and understand and then based on many factors, including just how well we're doing taking care of ourselves, we have the ability to show caring and compassionate behaviour coming out of us.



I'm curious about the concept that empathy can be learned. So if it is a skill that can be learned and can be honed, where does one start? Where does one start to say, Okay? How's my empathy level? How do I improve it?



So, importantly, empathy is a mutable human trait, which means it changes, it's not the same, I don't have the same empathy every single day, and neither does anyone else.

When we talk about empathy, we have to realise it can be blunted. So as I said before, if you're around too much pain and suffering, you at some point, might have to limit your exposure, or take a breath and step back, or even take a day off.

Because there's only so much the human mind and heart can absorb. So when we tamp down empathy, we are at risk for losing it if we don't replenish, and we don't kind of reset to be sensitive to other people.

And the reason I got into all of this empathy research is that, through my own experience, working with patients and just reading the media, there has been a time when patients are really saying they don't get enough empathy and care from their doctors.

And I was seeing that as a major problem. Because if you don't feel cared about, you're not that likely to follow recommendations or even want to come back and see that doctor. I was really on a quest to see if if you can beat empathy out of people, can you also bring it back? And a lot of people said no, if once you burned out, that's probably it like, or maybe those people never had any to begin with.

And through my research, I realised that we are most empathetic when our challenge channels are open, when we're really focusing on the other person and not so much on ourselves.

And that there are ways to enhance our perception of other people, for example, by learning to read their faces accurately, because the human face is actually a roadmap of emotion. But if we're not looking at each other, you're going to be missing what people are feeling.

And of course, during this pandemic we're in when half our faces are covered, it's even more important to pay attention to what people are saying with their eyes. And, our eyes and our forehead is where most emotion is actually expressed.

So the good thing is that even if we cover our mouths, where we can, you know, it's easy to fake a smile, but it's very hard to fake the other emotions because they're expressed in the eyes.


Your Intended Message is the podcast about how you can boost your career and business success by honing your communication skills. We’ll examine the aspects of how we communicate one-to-one, one to few and one to many – plus that important conversation, one to self.

In these interviews we will explore presentation skills, public speaking, conversation, persuasion, negotiation, sales conversations, marketing, team meetings, social media, branding, self talk and more.


Your host is George Torok

George is a specialist in communication skills. Especially presentation. He’s fascinated by the links between communication and influencing behaviours. He delivers training and coaching programs to help leaders and promising professionals deliver the intended message for greater success.


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