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The Trusted Advisor Relationship – Developing Empathy

The Trusted Advisor

Enlightened businesses today hire leadership consultants and executive coaches to help with their leadership development programs. However, increasingly a number of my clients now prefer me to help them in the role of trusted advisor rather than expert consultant.

This special partnership based on mutual respect and collaboration helps clients achieve desired results. The role of trusted advisor is open, transparent and fiercely client-centered.

Empathy Skills

Empathy skills are those that involve paying attention to other people - for example, listening, attending to the needs and wants of others, and building relationships. Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work:
1. Understanding others: sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
2. Developing others: sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities.

At the outset empathy involves real curiosity and a desire to know or understand. There is a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. You cannot have empathy without asking questions. Some typical ones are:

1. “Can you say more about that?”
2. “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”
3. “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”
4. “I’m curious about that…let’s discuss this in more depth.”
5. “Let me see if I understand you correctly…here is what I hear you say…”

Leaders who are high in empathy skills are able to pick up emotional cues. They can appreciate not only what a person is saying, but also why they are saying it. At the highest levels, they also understand where a person’s feelings might come from.

Those that do not have empathy have a tendency to misread the other person. They do not ask questions to clarify. They do not pay attention to non-verbal cues. Those people who are analytical by nature will listen to the words, facts and figures and completely miss the real message of what is being said.

Ten Ways to Develop Empathy

1. Keep a note of situations in which you felt you were able to demonstrate empathy and a note when you felt you did not. Make a note of missed opportunities to respond with empathy.
2. Become aware of incidents where there may be some underlying concerns that are not explicitly expressed by others.
3. Make a note of possible emotions or feelings that the other person may be experiencing. Keep an open mind and never assume, merely explore the possibilities.
4. Develop a list of questions to ask at your next encounter with that person. Try to make the questions open-ended, that is, questions that can’t be answered by yes or no.
5. Practice listening without interrupting. Wait until the other person is complete with their point of view before offering yours.
6. Avoid being defensive in order to create an open dialogue where possibilities can be explored freely.
7. Allow creative time for people to express opinions and ideas without judgment.
8. Practice active listening: always check out the meaning of what was said with the person speaking. Paraphrasing what was said helps to clear up misconceptions and to deepen understanding.
9. Always bring focus back into the conversation. Remember that optimal effectiveness is achieved by a combination of focus and empathy.
10. Work on achieving an effective balance of focus, goal orientation and empathic listening.

Emory University distinguished Professor Dr. Jagdish Sheth offers the following additional suggestions. Put yourself in unfamiliar physical or intellectual situations where you have neither mastery nor control. Travel to get new perspectives on how people live and their sufferings. Learn to distinguish between observations and judgments. Learn from failures and setbacks. Recognize and monitor your own personal filters. Don’t stereotype. Ask guiding questions that help clients find their own answers.

How Empathetic Are You?

•  You know what issues and concerns keep your clients awake at night.
•  You do twice as much listening as talking.
•  You and your clients enjoy spending time with each other, and they routinely confide in you.

Over a twenty-five year coaching and consulting career, I have found the trusted advisor role based on mutual respect and trust to be incredibly energizing. My clients don’t treat me as a vendor or dispassionate expert, but as someone who cares about their success at the deepest level of engagement.

The leaders I work with truly are often lonely at the top. Their ability to be open and transparent with me sharing their hopes and fears often leads to more comfort creating an organizational culture based on similar values.

We can discuss trends in other industries, politics, religion, art, music and other topics that inform the leaders’ personal and professional growth.  Leaders appreciate working with a thought partner to develop good judgment, and gain clarity in their decision-making. Establishing unwavering trust is critical to this somewhat sacred relationship.

Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development for senior leaders? Does your organization provide executive coaching to help leaders develop a more sustainable business? Trusted Advisors help enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to fully engage employees.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “How empathetic am I?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching for collaborative leaders who are curious about creating sustainable businesses.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help you create a happy and prosperous business where everyone is fully engaged. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

For more information, please go to, write to, or call 415-546-1252.

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