How to Build Empathy in People, from a Psychologist’s Trip to the Hospital

looking through glasses

Authored by

NLI Staff

When Peter Mende-Siedlecki was visiting a loved one in the hospital recently, he noticed something strange by the person’s bed. It was a set of statements, designed to remind the hospital staff of three things.

  • “Please call me _____.”
  • “What I would like you to know about me is _____.”
  • “What I value/love most is _____.”

For Mende-Siedlecki, a psychologist at the University of Delaware who’s spent a career studying empathy and spoke at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, this was a fantastic discovery. In just three prompts, the hospital engaged in expert individuation, or the psychological practice of seeing people as unique, distinct beings. We can think of it as the opposite of stereotyping.

In the workplace, individuation matters because empathy matters. Every day, teams collaborate based on overlapping strengths and weaknesses, constantly keeping others in mind. We sense people’s needs, they sense ours, and everyone adjusts accordingly.

The trouble is, science has repeatedly shown that empathy is a scarce resource; our brains don’t want to spend it willy-nilly. This leads to unfortunate observations like “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic,” and the all-too-human habit of “compassion collapse” in the face of mass tragedy, where the brain apparently has an easier time caring about one than many.

Individuation, Mende-Siedlecki’s research has found, works as a kind of shortcut to empathy. If we can remember that the people around us feel pain, stress, joy, and all the other things we too feel, maybe we can escape some of the habits that hold us back.

Teams don’t necessarily need to mimic the hospital’s prompts to reap the benefits of individuation. Instead, they can model themselves after the behaviors of society’s master networkers — namely, asking one another about aspects of their personal lives, such as where they’re from, who their family is, and how they stay busy, just to name a few.

The practice also helps build what Stanford University psychologist Leor Hackel calls “reciprocity.” Hackel, also a speaker at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, has found in his research that “paying it forward” through charitable actions or words, builds compassion in people.

Creating empathic teams is valuable for leaders because NLI’s own research has found that collective intelligence — even of the emotional kind — is critical for team function. It’s not enough to have a star player, in other words. The best teams are smarter, more creative, and generally higher-functioning because the whole is greater the sum of its parts.

It’s an ironic, humanistic takeaway: The more you help employees see each other as individuals, the stronger your entire team will be.

Share This Post

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

More To Explore

A microphone in front of an American crowd
Culture and Leadership

Our Political Differences are Increasingly Explosive. We Can Fix It.

Dr. David Rock, Co-Founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, highlights the transformative power of positive, personal engagement in difficult conversations. This article from the Cincinnati Enquirer explores how leveraging NLI’s SCARF model can help individuals diagnose and navigate communication challenges, fostering empathy and constructive dialogue across diverse perspectives.

Culture and Leadership

Closing the Gap Between Value and Functionality in Digital Workplace Tools

In this Reworked article, Matt Summers, Global Head of Culture and Leadership at the NeuroLeadership Institute, emphasizes that poorly designed user interfaces increase cognitive load, recommending that organizations prioritize user-centered design to enhance tool efficiency.

Ready to transform your organization?

Connect with a NeuroLeadership Institute expert today.

two people walking across crosswalk

This site uses cookies to provide you with a personalized browsing experience. By using this site you agree to our use of cookies as explained in our Privacy Policy. Please read our Privacy Policy for more information.