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ATD Blog

3 Reasons Why Empathy Is Essential for Your Training Development

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Empathy is a desirable leadership topic in today’s world of worker scarcity. Organizations must be recognized as caring for workers to compete for the top talent; training developers have even more important reasons to focus on their empathy during the development process.

Understanding Empathy

Hard-nosed managers will claim that they “just don’t do” empathy. It’s perceived as too squishy a concept for people of accountability and productivity. However, empathy can deliver real results. Empathy in its simplest form means “I understand this about you.” While all kinds of empathy are needed, cognitive empathy is far more useful than affective (feeling) empathy in the corporate world. This is both teachable and relevant to every leader and manager.

It is not about whether someone is a feeling-forward person or more thoughtful; rather, it’s about understanding other people and situations. That’s why it is essential for learning professionals. Before we can create training on any topic, we must understand it.

Reason 1: Not All Subject Matter Experts Are Created Equal

Some subject matter experts are amazing. They can articulate the precise beliefs and behaviors that we must see to achieve success. More frequently, the subject matter experts can’t directly articulate what will achieve the desired outcomes. In these cases, learning professionals must leverage skills and frameworks that can elicit the tacit knowledge of the subject matter expert in ways that lead to a deep understanding of their world and its challenges.


Tools like ethnographic interviewing help move from no understanding to solid understanding. Techniques like motivational interviewing help to identify and clarify the necessary changes. Approaches like dialogue mapping help align multiple subject matter experts and generate consensus about what must happen.

Reason 2: Not All Sponsors Are Patient

Project sponsors at every level are looking for results. They have no real desire for the training in development; they want the results they believe the training will give them. It’s a leap of faith from training someone to seeing different beliefs and behaviors. Sponsors look for clues as to whether the end results will be achieved. One of the important clues is whether the learning professional seems to understand their world—and the world that they’re trying to change by training.


Not using the right language, processes, and frameworks can break confidence and trust and cause the sponsor to take a different approach—either with the project overall or by going outside the learning and development department to find a way to get what they want.

Reason 3: Not All Things Are as They Appear

Too often, we accept the guidance of the sponsor or the first subject matter expert in the needed development. Too many times, this guidance is limited by their perspectives. These can lead to the development of materials that either don’t match the actual needs or won’t result in the change the organization needs because of mitigating factors.


Effective training speaks in the voices of those it trains, addresses the real barriers they face, and solves the problems that the organization needs solved. The only way to accomplish this is to deeply understand the people and their perspectives.

About the Author

Robert Bogue has led change projects for three decades. As a recovering technologist, he’s changed the way people work as he changed the technology. He’s the author of 28 books, including Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, and has been a Microsoft MVP for 17 years. His work has transformed corporations, government, and quasi-government organizations. It’s not about the technology, but he leverages his strength in technology and human systems to create change that is sustainable and transformative for organizations of all sizes and shapes. He knows how to ignite engagement, stop from burning out, and freeze a snowballing conflict in its tracks. Follow him at

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