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Tactical Empathy

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Active listening is an easy first step to Tactical Empathy.

Empathy Definition: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Tactical Empathy Definition: intentionally using concepts of empathy from neuroscience to influence emotions

Why is using tactical empathy important as a leader? Those we lead have a feeling of needing to be heard, to be cared about, and to be understood. People will follow those leaders who show a genuine sense of caring about their well-being in combination with competence in their work. Tactical empathy can provide the groundwork for effective communication. It can also uncover underlying emotions and motivations.

Building tactical empathy

What are some steps to building tactical empathy? The first step is authentic and active listening. This means being open, attentive, asking open-ended questions, then reflecting back on what the other person is saying before speaking our own opinions. Most people, especially when upset have the need to be heard. It is important to reflect back not just what is being said, but the emotion you are sensing behind it. Then ask if you have it correct or if you are missing something.

Tactical empathy involves mirroring. This involves mimicking the body language of the other person and repeating the last one to three words at certain times in the conversation. Humans like those that they feel are similar to them, even if they are just noticing it on a subconscious level.

Calibrated questions are part of tactical empathy as well. These are “how” and “what” questions structured for effect. These questions can help bring a mutually-agreeable resolution.

Let’s go on to an example below using these three steps.


Context: An employer who usually values work/life balance and has employees work no more than eight hours per day, is working on an important project short-staffed. The past two weeks and the next two weeks all employees will be working long hours.

An employee is venting to you about working long days.

Employee: “I’m so tired. I don’t feel like I can take it. Usually, this company is so good with work life/balance. I’m just worn-out, burnt out, frustrated and sick of working long 16 hours days the past two weeks.”

You:(listening and pausing to make sure they are done): “It sounds like you are frustrated, you have been working 16-hour days the past two weeks (mirroring). Do I have that correct or is there something I am missing?”

Employee: “Yes, but it’s not just that. I don’t mind working the hours occasionally, but it caused me to miss two of my son’s baseball games in a row. He looks forward to having me watch him and that hasn’t happened lately.”

You: “Thank you for working the long hours. (appreciation) It has been hard. (empathy) It sounds like you are feeling guilty for missing your son’s games. (reflection) We know the next couple of weeks may be long hours too. What can we do to make sure the project is still on track and get you to your son’s games?” (Calibrated Question)

Employee: “Next Tuesday and Thursday the games are from 6 pm to 8 pm. My family usually sleeps in Saturdays, while I am an early riser. Would it be possible to work 6 am to 10 am on Saturday at my home office and cover the hours missed while going to my son’s games?”

You: “Absolutely! Thank you for being so flexible!”

In summary, your people want to be heard and understood. Listen to them. Repeat back what they have to say and ask if there is anything else. Then ask calibrated questions to solve issues together. There are many other things that tactical empathy can entail, but this is a good start. For more information see our sources/resources section.

Reflection Question: How can I build my tactical empathy skills?

Topic Next Week: Balanced Boundaries


Videos: Tactical Empathy Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS Never Split the Difference Chris Voss

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