Generally, an empathetic leader is a good one. But particularly during a crisis, the ability to show genuine and effective empathy to the people affected can make the entire difference in whether you will succeed or will fail.

Unfortunately, most of the CEO statements I've reviewed during recent PR crises (such as the United Airlines passenger dragging incident) have failed miserably on this front. A company's efforts to resolve a problem can only be successful when leaders convey a genuine understanding and care for the way a blunder has made their customers feel.

So the secret to crisis communication, then, is empathy.

But wait--there's more

Unfortunately, showing effective empathy is not as easy as simply saying "I understand how this made you feel and I'm sorry." According to psychologists and experts, there are actually three forms of empathy to consider and learn. All are genuine. But in a business setting, some varieties are more appropriate and effective than others.

The three kinds of empathy we can exhibit are 1) Cognitive Empathy, 2) Emotional Empathy and 3) Compassionate Empathy. They break down like this:

Cognitive Empathy

In cognitive empathy, a leader will conscientiously listen and strive to understand the opinion of an employee or customer. On the face of it, the ability to study and respect all sides of a position is useful, and can increase the recipient's respect. But without a balancing component of emotional or compassionate empathy, cognitive empathy may come through as a cold and calculated action, akin to a lawyer who prepares and studies their opponent's position only for the purpose of building a better strategy for shutting them down. Cognitive empathy, on its own, can seem crass and conniving instead of appropriate or kind.

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy occurs when the effort to understand and sympathize with another person makes the other person's opinion contagious. The leader isn't just listening, but begins to feel what the other party is feeling in an emotional and personal way. When a baby's mother smiles, for example, the baby will tend to smile and feel happy as well. But when a baby or toddler in a room starts to cry, other babies will often become agitated and begin crying as well.

Emotional empathy may be beneficial for showing unfailing support to a close friend or a family member. It can be beneficial for professionals such as healthcare workers as well, in providing comfort and determining the best course of treatment. But too much emotional empathy can burn the practitioner out, or may be unprofessional in business settings that require a high degree of authority and self control.

Compassionate Empathy

Of all forms of empathy, compassionate empathy is generally the most ideal for a business or political setting. A leader shows they are truly listening when they exhibit compassion. Their words and actions convey they not only understand the customer or employee's point of view, but they genuinely care. Yet they remain composed and diligent in the process of making a genuine apology, amending a wrong, and maintaining the composure and self control to enact a solid improvement to programs and training that can prevent a negative situation from happening again.

So back to the United example. In CEO Oscar Munoz's initial statement he assured listeners he would look into the situation, but noted the passenger officers had dragged from the plane had been "belligerent" and that employees had been following standard procedure. His inability to demonstrate empathy at even a cognitive level enraged customers and investors. To them, it expressed that he pretty much didn't care. Investors reacted by erasing $224M in market value in a single day.

In contrast, consider Munoz' second apology:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It's never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what's broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We'll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.



In the first part of this statement, Munoz is exhibiting cognitive and compassionate empathy. He is genuinely listening to the way the situation has made his customers feel. In the second and third portions, he takes the compassionate empathy further by not dissolving in a puddle of emotion, but by resolving to enact a solution that can meet the requirements of all.

If only he had learned to show appropriate empathy sooner, his organization would be far better off. However, we can all learn the nature of appropriate empathy from this and other similar situations, in order to make our own future actions in the midst of an emergency an immediate and appropriate win.