Empathy – Why It’s Important

Empathy – what does this word evoke in you?

I found that this is not an easy word for me to truly understand. The easier word to feel for is sympathy, which is to express sorrow or feel sorry for someone who has had a misfortune of a negative or undesired experience. For example, if a friend happened to have caught the dengue fever and had to be hospitalised, I can feel sympathy for my friend and express my sympathy for him/her. But to truly empathize with him? To really put myself in his shoes and feel the pain, the frustrations, the bodily fever and nausea and all the sensations he is going through is not easy. Not possible unless I am struck with dengue myself.  I think it’s not possible to have 100% empathy unless we have had the experience ourselves.

I had a bad ankle sprain recently when I jumped and landed on the side of my foot during a game of badminton. It was really painful and the foot swelled up immediatedly. I applied ice the same day and it swelled to an even bigger foot the next day! I couldn’t use my left foot and had difficulty moving about. Everything I did that required movement reminded me of the sprain – this included bathing (I couldn’t stand on 2 feet and had to rely on support of the wall), making coffee (I have to wash the cup and move around to get coffee and boil water) and everything that required use of the foot. The positive outcome of the experience (the physical sensations and mental frustration) was that it allowed me to truly empathize with the  disabled amongst us (especially those who has no legs, those who has 1 leg, those with movement disability, and the aged who has difficulty walking). This episode triggered the question about empathy, whether we can truly empathize with someone else and how we can better empathize with someone else?

How can we better emphatize with someone else?

I can think of the following ways:

First, listen. Just listen. Really listen. Don’t listen while thinking at the back of your head about how to respond or something else in your mind. Don’t listen while listening to the other voices in your head. Just pay 100% attention to the other person and what is said. Listen to the tone of voice, the volume in the voice and the emphasis or lack of it in the words uttered. Listen to the emotion and energy of what is shared. Be 100% present in the moment. If we really listen, we can pick up important cues about the experience as the person describes it – this helps us better emphatize. When we really listen, the other person would feel really listened to and this is probably just what the other person needs – someone to just listen to them  (and not offer solutions, etc.).

If you don’t have the opportunity to interact with the person, keep an open mind and don’t assume you know what the other person is going through, his/her intention or perspective. Be open and if there is an opportunity, go talk to him/her.

Ask (if it was not shared and appropriate to do so) what the experience was like for him/her. What was really difficult or painful ? How does she/he feel?  How has the experience changed him/her? This helps us imagine more vividly what the experience feels like.

Acknowledge what the other person is going through and offer encouragement and support if appropriate.  Acknowledging what someone else is going through sends the message that you feel for them.

Is empathy important? I believe so. Research done (published in Harvard Business Review) where business leaders were asked what attributes are critical in today’s digital, global economy showed that empathy was one of the top 5, and also quoted as the most important. The ability to empathize allows a person to really understand the customer and people from different cultures. Empathy allows a manager to understand and connect better with his staff. This contributes to better insights about customers and stronger engagement with employees.

Design thinking, a methodology popularised by IDEO is used widely today not just by designers but businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations to build better products and services. Design thinking puts Empathy as the first important step in order to come up with a solution that truly meets the needs of the customer. Empathy is about immersion in the customer’s world, walking in the customers’ shoes, experiencing what the customer goes through in order to truly understand the issues, difficulties and challenges faced before coming up with the problem statement.  Empathy is the first important step to develop better products and services.

I think all of us have empathy within us. We just need to remember to tap into it and have the courage to show it.




Developing self


Tina is a 61 year old lady who joins a monthly book club organized by the local newspaper The New Straits Times. It’s a group formed to discuss selected non-fiction books which are intellectually stimulating and enriching – the books are profiled by a journalist, Cheong Suk Wai on her Sunday columns regularly. On one of the evenings where members got together, Tina poured her heart out after a discussion on a book “Words Without Music”written by acclaimed music composer Philip Glass. In the book, Glass wrote about how he drove taxi, fixed pipes and installed toilets for 20 years while pursuing his dream of becoming the world’s greatest composer. She identified with Glass’s struggle and  shared how her teachers wrote her off early on in life…At first, she believed them. She became a housewife and mother but inside her heart of hearts she wanted to pursue a degree. Her son spurred her on and she related how he sat with her side by side when he was a boy and taught her how to use a scientific calculator. At age 50, she graduated with  a double degree in Finance and Human Resource Management! She is 61 now and continues to develop herself.

Remember that “Nobody in going to invest in you but you”. Part of leading ourselves is to be self-directed in our own learning. Be proactive about it. What knowledge and skills you learn is going to be a part of you forever and nobody can take that away. I believe that everybody wants to get better at what they do – it doesn’t matter if you’re a carpenter, a plumber, a cleaner, security guard, manager, artist, etc. We want to get better at what we do. The pursuit of self-mastery is itself a worthy goal to pursue and pursuing mastery is not only highly motivating, it is actually a source of meaning in life.

In one of the TED talks that I’ve watched, the speaker shared 3 steps to be awesome in whatever we do. It’s simple but powerful. The 3 steps are:

1.  Know yourself. Develop self-awareness. How? Often we don’t see ourselves as we are but we see ourselves as we like others to see us. We usually either see ourselves as extremely negative (i.e. poor self-image and confidence) or extremely positive (i.e. high self-image and confidence). We hardly see ourselves as we are. The goal is to find the middle point, which is humility. Develop a sense of humility and get feedback from others. Those of us who have asked for feedback know it’s not as easy as it sounds!  People usually say it takes courage to ask for feedback. It takes courage because we don’t want to feel hurt if the feedback is negative. I find that mustering courage to ask for feedback is less effective. It’s really hard to find the courage to ask for feedback especially at the workplace because if the feedback is negative, we’re worried it means it’ll go against us in the annual performance appraisal. Think of it this way – regardless of what we think of ourselves, others already have a view about us, so asking it only benefits us because we become aware of our impact on others. What if you don’t care about how others view you? Well, it’s not to your benefit  as well because you never know if the views might be valid and those feedback might reach the people whose feedback you care about (e.g. your boss or an important stakeholder).  A more effective approach to ask for feedback is to see it as an act of humility. Humility does not mean you are weak. Being humble doesn’t mean you are weak. When you think of humility, remember this: People who are humble do not think any less of themselves; they just think of themselves less. So, ask for feedback from your boss, your subordinates (if any), your friends and your colleagues.

2.  Pick 1 thing, just 1 thing to improve from the feedback that you receive. There are many things we want to improve but the trick is to pick just one and focus on it.

3.  Practice, practice, practice. This is a law or principle that holds true if we want to improve. We have to practice, practice, practice until it becomes ingrained in us; until it becomes a habit. I tried to learn to play the guitar some time ago. It was really hard. My fingers hurt from pressing the metal strings and when I started to learn, I can’t imagine being able to play a song at all… It just seemed like a process that will take me a long long time. Despite feeling discouraged, I persisted and pressed on. At first, I pressed 3 strings to make a C chord. I practiced and practiced until it sounded like a C chord. Then I learnt the G and D chord. I repeated the practice many times until I could play all 3 chords. Then I practiced how to switch between the 3 chords until it felt natural. The fingers hurt like hell 🙂  but after many weeks, it hurt less and less and with 3 chords I could now play a song!  If you want to improve anything, remember that you have to practice.

The last thing I’d like to share about developing ourselves is to develop a inquiring mind. Always ask questions. Don’t just accept what you’ve read or heard or seen. Ask questions. For example, don’t just accept what I’ve shared with you here. Ask yourself does it make sense? Why did I say what I said? Does it apply in all situations? How can I make it even better?  The process of questioning is a process of learning. It will deepen your understanding of what you’ve read, seen, heard and experienced. Use all the “Wh” (What, Why, When, Where) questions and How question all the time.

Remember, nobody is going to invest in you but you!

Finding your purpose


I studied engineering in school because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study to become after junior college. So I went to the local university and spent four years of my life there. I did well enough to graduate and I remember after I had cleared all the exams and waiting to leave the university hall of residence where I stayed, I felt really lost and didn’t know what I was going to do after graduation. A lot of people felt that way I’m sure. Eventually after a few months I found a job with an engineering firm and worked there as a test development engineer. I struggled quite a bit and found that I really didn’t have a great interest or talent to make it as a good engineer. I started looking for another job and found a job as an IT systems engineer after 6 months. The job was better and I learnt a lot of new things and got immersed in doing project management work. It was demanding but I pulled through the first year. Subsequently I moved to handle different projects over the years. When globalization became widespread, the IT industry responded accordingly and IT services became regionalized and globalized. A lot of change started to happen. As part of the IT function, I went through those re-organizations constantly. While I was doing ok, I felt there has to be some deeper meaning to life and work – something was missing. One day, I came across Stephen Covey and his book – the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That book changed the course of my career and life – I remember reading the chapter where he asked me to imagine my life when I was an old man and looking back at my life – what did I see? Did I pursue my passions? Did I live my life without any regrets?

Dr Covey was in fact gently nudging me to find my purpose in life. I started reading and researching about purpose and finding out about myself. After some time, I came to the insight that finding our purpose has to do with finding out what is our contribution to the world or to other people. It’s about how we contribute and how we choose to make a difference. Each one of us wants to make a difference. It’s how we make the difference that distinguishes my purpose from your purpose. To answer the question of what is your purpose in life, you have to fill in the blanks to: My purpose in life is to make a difference to others by ………….

I felt that since I spent so much time at work, I wanted my work to be aligned to my purpose. To do that I have to figure out what kind of activities excite me and what activities I find meaningful. For me, it was learning new things and helping others learn new things. To find out what you love to do, go inside yourself. Take the time to write down what you like to do, take time to become more aware of what you enjoy doing.

This is the simplest and an effective way to find out your life purpose. There are 5 questions to answer. Ready to find out what they are?

The 5 questions are:
Who am I?
What do I do love to do?
Who do you do it for?
What do they want or need?
How they change as a result of it?
I heard these 5 questions from Adam Leipzig from his TEDTalk and they’re excellent!

First question – who am I? That’s your name! Say it out! Write it down here

Second question – what do I love to do? Ask yourself what is the one thing you feel you are uniquely qualified to teach others? Say it out! Write it down

Third question – who do you do it for? Say it out! Write it down

Fourth question – What do they want or need? Say it out! Write it down

Fifth question – How do they change as a result of it? Say it out! Write it down

Notice that only 2 questions are about yourself. The other 3 is about other people and how we serve others.
Here’s the good thing about expressing your purpose – you will be happier. Happier people focus on others and how they can serve others and take care of others. When they do that we will feel happier too and life will reward us for helping others.

When someone asks you what do you do? You can just tell them the answer to the last question.
For example, you may say I help people look and feel their best if you’re say a hairdresser or retail assistant at a shop. You may say you give kids awesome dreams if you’re a children’s book writer.
I would say I help people be more effective, motivated and happier at work.

A young man wanted to find his purpose and went to the village wise man for help. He said “Follow me”. He brought him to the river where the young man could see many people panning for gold.
The old man said “There are 3 type of prospectors”
“What do you mean?”, asked the young man
“The first type is those who strike gold straightaway. They take their plunder, cash it in and live comfortably for the rest of their lives”
“The second type of people – they pan for years – they know there is gold there and they have seen others strike it rich, so they persist until they too find the gold they are looking for”
“What about the third type?” , asked the young man
The wise old man said “The third type of people they are the ones who get frustrated they haven’t found gold, so after a day, 2 days, a week or a year, they give up and walk away and never find gold”

Slightly confused the young man asked the old man “What’s that got to do with finding my purpose”

“Aah –yes, there are those in life who look for their purpose and seem to find it almost immediately. They have a clear sense of purpose and pursue it with enthusiasm. Then there are those who have to look harder and persist and after perhaps many years they find it. Then there are those who want to know their purpose but are frustrated with the search and give up too soon”

The old man told the young man “The search is worth it just like the gold in the river”

In my case, after I’ve identified my purpose, I went in pursuit of it. I decided to move into the field of organization and people development. I pursued further qualifications, getting a diploma in training initially and later on, a masters in organizational leadership. I volunteered for external facilitation work to gain experience and eventually made an internal transition within my company to do the work full-time.

My struggle to live my purpose is not easy but it is also not unique. I believe that each of us has a purpose. Articulating our purpose is very affirming to the soul and is one of the sources that would give us a strong sense of meaning in our lives.

Take the time, have faith and search for your purpose – you will find the gold eventually.

The Single Most Important Quality of Leadership


A little girl was born in a small village in Albania on Aug 26th 1910. She was given the name Agnes by her parents. When she grew up she became a teacher and taught at a school. At the place where she taught, she would often hear cries on the street outside the school walls. Later she found out those were the cries of the poor on the streets. One day, she decided she wanted to help the poor and set out into the streets and made a little make-shift hut. She knelt in the dirt and used a stick to write the letters of the alphabet on the ground. Becoming curious, the poor children came over to investigate what this little lady was doing in the dirt. Slowly, the children came to learn. Soon, there were thirty children crouching on the ground beside her, learning to read and write.

After she taught them, she would beg for food to feed them. Some who had been her students at the school where she used to teach came to work with her to help the children. They would go to stores and ask for leftover food that would otherwise be thrown away. Soon, more and more people came to help – some would offer a place to stay and some gave medical supplies. Agnes had sparked a movement that got the attention of her superiors at the school, and it went all the way up to top management. Management having seen what she had done decided to give her the resources so that she may set up a proper support and structure to help the poor.

She later on came to be known as Mother Theresa and she made it her mission to help the poorest of the poor in India.

What is it about Mother Theresa that made her do those things she did and attracted others to follow her and help her in her cause?

She has what I would call personal leadership. Personal leadership, not positional leadership. She has no formal authority from a position she holds. She’s a regular person like you and me, working in a place, a school just like any organization out there. She is not a manager, she is not a team leader but make no mistake, she is a leader. She exercises her personal leadership. This is something that all of us have and we have a choice whether to embrace it. When we exercise our personal leadership, we are just simply being ourselves, we are just behaving naturally and our focus is to genuinely help others. That’s it. Personal leadership is about helping others, about looking out for the person to the left of you and to the right of you. It’s about caring for your colleagues. When we do this, something magical happens. Trust comes about. When people feel that you genuinely care about them and look out for them, they feel safe. When they feel safe, they start to trust you. When they trust you, they come to you for advice even if you’re not offering it. They listen to you. They would follow your lead. It works the other way too. If you feel your colleague genuinely looks out for your interest, you would trust them too, and follow their lead.

So, trust comes about when people feel safe. And they feel safe if they know and believe that you are looking out for their interest.

I’m sure you have friends that you trust or you trust your family members. Why? Because you know that they will look out for you – you feel safe to tell them things, to share your sorrow and your joy. That family member of yours whom you listen to is exercising his/her personal leadership.

I have a good friend whom I see exercises her personal leadership but she tells me doesn’t see herself as a leader and she has no interest whatsoever to be a leader!

So I asked her, those friends of yours – they always come to you for advice on what to do with their challenges – they seek you out for advice. She says “Yeah, they always do, I don’t know why. They like to come to me”

I said to her “Do you know why? It’s because they trust you! They know you have their interest at heart and would genuinely help them out where you can”

That’s leadership!

Trust is a funny thing – you can’t ask for it. You can’t ask someone else and say to him “Give me your trust!” You cannot go to your team and say “Trust me, this will work out” That’s not how it works. Trust is a feeling… it is an outcome – Trust has to be earned and trust comes about when people believe you genuinely care for them and look out for them. Then they feel safe and then trust develops. I believe that a person’s intention to genuinely help and care for others is the single most important factor that builds trust with another person – and when someone does that he/she is exercising his/her personal leadership. I believe care for others is the single most important quality that makes a person a leader . Different studies have shown this to be the case (follow my Twitter feed @cchewns or FlipBoard topic Personal Leadership to read the research and findings about this).

Another useful concept is to think of trust like a bank account. Do things that increases the trust such as being reliable and your trust with others will strengthen.

You can also disclose more about yourself, your interests and other aspects of yourself besides work so that others get to know you more intimately as a person. This will build greater trust because when you open yourself up to others, others will start to open themselves up and greater trust develops. Let’s call this Intimacy.

Know your stuff – really know what you do well because when you help someone who comes to you or who follows what you tell him, you’re giving you solid advice based on what you know, not what you don’t know or what you think you know but not very sure. We can call this Competence.

There is a useful trust equation from Charles Green that captures this nicely

Trust = Competence + Reliability + Intimacy


Self Orientation

Focusing less on self (i.e. self-orientation) and caring for others will increase trust dramatically.

If you are in a formal position of authority say a team leader or manager, doing things that show you care and look out for your people, doing what you said you would and being open and personal with your people will help create strong bonds of trust and cooperation. This is truly what is at the heart of leadership – if you take care for your people, your people will reciprocate and take care of you, the team and the organisation. The saying that ” People don’t care what you know until they know that you care” applies here – People don’t really care inside even though you are a their formal leader until they know that you really care about them.

I believe that if every one of us, whether we are the most junior worker, manager, director or CEO, if we embrace and exercise our personal leadership, there would be this circle of trust and safety at the workplace – and the organization would be so much more effective. Staff will be so much more engaged and so much more fulfilled at work.

I’ll leave you with a final thought:

Every single one of us, you and me has inside of us, this capacity for personal leadership – it’s not about being the boss or someone with authority. It’s simply being ourselves and nurturing or developing our very human instinct to genuinely help and care for the people around us. I urge you my friends, embrace your personal leadership.