Skip to main content

Empathy in the Air

January 4, 2015

Is 2015 the year for you to expand into a leadership role? Are you focused on becoming a better leader this year? As you head back to the office, consider adding "Develop a sense of empathy" to your list of New Year's Resolutions.

Do you travel for your job? Extensive travel is a must in my profession, so like some of you, I spend a good deal of time in the skies. Over the years as a "road warrior", I have found flying to provide a powerful source of continuous learning and professional growth. Think about some of the most interesting people you've met on flights and what you learned from them?

So, let's board my last flight of 2014, so we can better understand the capacity for empathy and how it differs from sympathy. As you experience this flight with me, think about how you can leverage a sense of empathy to improve your own leadership in the workplace.


Empathy - to share or recognize emotions experienced by may need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate compassion.



Sympathy - the feeling or expression of pity or sorrow for the pain or distress of somebody else.



An Upgrade from Coach Class to the Coaching Class Cabin

Earlier this week, I was quietly settling into a routine flight home for the holiday when the gentleman to my left offered a conversation-starter:



"Great evening to fly..."

And with that simple invitation, we started a conversation.

As we took flight and climbed to cruising altitude, our conversation emerged into a meaningful dialogue for the bulk of the journey. It turned out that this gentleman (15 years my senior) was a seasoned and successful business leader who graciously allowed our conversation to transform so I could tap into his wisdom and reflect on my own performance as an Agile Team and Leadership coach. I then realized that I had been unexpectedly upgraded from the Coach Class cabin into the "Coaching" class cabin.

Throughout our dialogue, he demonstrated an uncanny ability to understand and relate to personal and professional motivators, the feelings of success and failure, and how those emotions influence my own professional behavior. It created a conversational environment of trust and safety that allowed our discussion to dig deep for learning moments and improvement opportunities. By the time we landed and approached the gate, he had helped me generate new ideas for my own coaching toolkit to carry into the New Year. The conversation felt genuine and a connection had been made.

That conversation is an example of how great business leaders use empathy to elevate the performance of people, teams and organizations.

I'll help us explore this powerful capacity further into the New Year, but for now, consider watching this brief, but eloquent message as a starting point for developing your own sense of empathy. As you'll experience in this clip, empathy and sympathy generate strikingly different responses - and it's important to understand the difference as you expand your own leadership potential:



As a leader, are you looking to fuel connections, or drive disconnections? How will you inspire your organization to reach new heights of success in 2015?



What is your sense of empathy?

So, as we wrapped up our conversation and the plane stopped at the gate, a sudden scream for help startled the cabin. After some scuffling and head-turning, one of the crew members announced with urgency:



Ladies and gentlemen, we have a passenger medical emergency. Please stay in your seats until further notice.

After a few minutes of waiting at the gate, passengers behaved in different ways. Some stayed silent. Others reassured the rest of the crew and provided support. Some muttered statements like: "Must be an anxiety attack." ... "Hope it's not too serious." I even watched one passenger look at a crew member and ask, "The emergency is behind me. Why can't I just leave the plane now?" Most passengers, however, showed a genuine look of concern in their eyes, didn't really know what to say, but clearly understood their role to stay put.

Which responses showed empathy, sympathy, or even a lack of empathy all together? How would you have responded?

As several emergency personnel worked their way into the cabin, it became clear that the situation was potentially serious. The passenger in distress was a small child, and as this child was carefully carried off and connected to medical gear, one passenger decided to exit immediately behind the child's upset mother while the rest of the passengers remained in their seats and waited patiently for the crew's instructions. As this one passenger rushed off the plane, he muttered, "Gosh, that's so sad."

The passenger to my right, who had not been a part of my "in-flight" dialogue, looked at me and said sarcastically:



Empathetic, huh?

Before you return to the workplace this New Year, consider testing your own sense of empathy. What would an empathetic vs. sympathetic response feel like to you, and how can you translate those feelings into effective leadership behaviors in your organization?



I really appreciate you taking time to read this post. If you learned something new or were inspired in any way, please consider sharing with your colleagues so we can collectively make a difference in organizations of all shapes and sizes. Scrum On!

I also teach, mentor and coach People, Teams and Organizations to high levels of performance in an Agile environment. Want to experience some of my teachings in person? I would be privileged to collaborate with you at one of my upcoming events.

Recent posts from Daniel:








What did you think about this post?