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I read a great article today on three different types of empathy  and why empathy is a leadership skill worth developing: you can read the full article here

It brought to mind a training I developed a few years ago for volunteer telephone help desk workers. As a volunteer role this task could be very challenging. There was an uncertainty about each new call, as many callers were simply looking for information, but you never knew when someone in the middle of a crisis situation would ring.

What was important here was for the help desk volunteer to take control of the phone call but not be sucked into the crisis situation. The key to that was to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Ane what did I mean by that?


One problem these telephone help desk volunteers sometimes has was a caller spending much longer on the phone than necessary and we worked on how to modify the language used to manage this situation.

The best way to avoid this was to reduce the use of  dramatic words. I asked them to think about whether it could be a tabloid headline and to avoid words such as “Awful” “Ghastly” “Disastrous” “Terrible”. Using these types of words helps the caller to agree with you, and tell you more details of why its “just too awful”

I also wanted them to see why saying things such as “I’ve never heard of this ever happening to anyone else” would give the caller the idea that they were totally unique (read freakish!) and there was no help available.

The volunteers were a little resistant to this at first, after all, sympathy was needed, and wasn’t it a good thing to let people talk? Then I showed why empathy would be more useful, and they really “got it!”


We wanted the caller to become receptive to the volunteers advise and information. Again the language used can is very important here. The best method of reaching the caller was to use calming words, so we practised phrases such as:

  • “That can’t be very pleasant for you”
  • “Oh, dear”
  • “that’s sad”
  • “that must be a problem for you”

These type of phrases distanced the volunteer from the callers problem, whilst still acknowledging their situation. If they had a completely novel situation we worked on sentences such as:

  • “that’s a new one on me, lets see what we can find out about it”

The result of using empathy, gave the caller confidence that there were answers, and those answers could be provided by the help desk. It also empowered the caller, letting them know they could take action, but had the support of the help desk.

It was a fun training, and helped the volunteers a lot. It’s important to realise we all take on leadership roles whether paid or unpaid, and can develop leadership skills in many different scenarios. If you are interested in how you can improve your leadership skills, please get in touch with me on 0624 161 961, or mail me at