Leaders: How to Hone Your Sixth Sense


Our teams and employees are not always willing to say that they need help. This is because they may perceive that asking for help is a sign of weakness and that there may be negative repercussions for speaking up.

Fortunately, science is now showing us how to read the emotions of other people so that we can proactively offer help rather than sitting on the sidelines hoping for a better day. As leaders, we need to know what’s going on with our teams and employees. We just need to engage the tools we have so that we can maximize our effectiveness with the people that we lead.

But before we jump in with new tools and techniques, we need to understand what we are dealing with when it comes to properly communication with our teams.

We need to ask ourselves question like these:

“Are they facing major obstacles? Is their rational thinking overridden with fear?”

Taking Empathy to the Next Level

Empathy is the act of recognizing and sharing the feelings (such as jubilation or fear) that are being experienced by another person.

New scientific discovery is giving us confidence to expand on this traditional definition by including the ability to pick up on the felt, bodily sensations of another person.

“This helps us know if an employee needs our help to clear an obstacle or needs to receive some encouragement.

A large number of experiments using functional MRI have focused on brain processes underlying the experience of empathy.

They have shown that certain brain regions are active when people experience an emotion and the same regions are active when they see another person experiencing the same emotion.

The practice of “feeling into” another person is reportedly used in psychotherapy, and now we can use it in business.

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An Invaluable Leadership Tool

Being able to tell how another person is feeling is a great skill for anyone in a position of leading people, but it can be invaluable for certain types of project leadership.

In the Information Technology teams I’ve led, we use Agile software development techniques, and one common practice is a daily stand-up meeting .

In these sessions, the teams have a very short daily meeting where each person is to quickly state how their work is going, exposing any issues so the team can help.

The problem is that often team members don’t feel comfortable reporting issues. If the leader has the ability to feel for themselves how the person is doing, they can question the person further or can make a mental note to follow up with them later.

Get Out of Your Mind

There are three levels of your brain and each perceives differently. The upper, neocortex deals with abstract-conceptual perception and rational meaning.

This is generally the most action level in a business setting. The midbrain handles perception through the five senses, and the reptile brain perceives thru subtle vibes, such as instinctive attraction and repulsion.

“When you feel into another person, you’re using a part of your brain not typically used in business.

To feel into another person, project your awareness to the other person, envision moving down in your brain toward your instinctive senses, and pay attention to how your body feels.

Key In on Your Emotions

This is where knowledge of how your own emotions feel in your body really pays off because you will feel their emotions the same way you feel your own.

  • When the other person is feeling empowered and confident, you may feel energy rising in your body, perhaps a warmness around your chest.
  • If, on the other hand, you feel your energy drop or tighten, the other person is likely tense, worried, feeling overwhelmed, or holding something back.

You can feel the steady waves of harmonious people and the adrenaline of people who are afraid or operating from their ego.

This technique works in person, by phone or even email, as long as you feel a connection to the other person and can project your awareness to them.

It’s important to keep in mind that especially while you’re learning this technique, always verify with the person that you’ve accurately detected what they’re feeling. I find that people are usually pleasantly surprised that you’ve been able to detect how they’re feeling.

Can you see yourself using this technique with confidence? Do you already use this type of technique or something similar? How would this be useful to you as a leader? Please share your thoughts on this. I would love to hear them!


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Jackie Barretta is Managing Partner at Nura Group LLC
She uses scientific discovery to help businesses achieve industry bests in performance
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3 responses to “Leaders: How to Hone Your Sixth Sense

  1. Hi Jackie,

    Is there any scientific data collected on the use of “empathy” as a contributor to leadership? From our experience, empathy works when during the time the person needs support, however, it’ll come back to haunt you later on (you’re now his/her friend). Empathy and keeping a safe distance between you and your team are mutually exclusive.


  2. Hi, I’m using the term empathy to mean that a leader can sense the emotions of another person. A leader can do that without the other person even knowing it and without getting caught up in the emotional story of the other person. In other words, you can feel the emotions of another person, take action based on what you feel, and then disconnect and move on. In fact, as you hone these skills, you have to become practiced at disconnecting from others’ emotions or you’ll get consumed by too much emotional energy. So using this technique doesn’t require that you become friends, or emotionally involved, with the other person.


    • I concur, Jackie!

      My heartbeat is teaching what I call “Knucklehearted Leaders” (See quick slideshow http://linked2leadership.com/about/) how to effective use empathy to increase their level of personal leadership effectiveness.

      I do this with a values-card sorting/prioritization exercise that shows leaders how to read people effectively and how to honor the values of others so that the other person engages at a deeper level. When a boss is empathetic in the context of work, the employees learn to be less selfish and want to contribute outside of selfish ambition. It works at such a fundamental level that trust is easy to build.

      I call the process leadership recalibration, (The Recalibrate Values Cards used for values sorting are packaged in a “Leadership PowerLab” and certainly not marketed to knucklehearted people as “empathy training” because those types would never sign up :O)

      Of course, anyone can misuse the information the learn about someone in terms of values or empathy, but this doesn’t negate any positive aspects of an honorable leader leading well by using the information correctly.

      Keep up the God Work, Jackie! great post today!



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