A customer recently asked how I defined an “empathy interview.” Because she needed to explain it to the leadership team around her, I needed to provide a better answer than my typical stammering about “understanding” and “being ready” and “connecting.” As all good engineers would do, my next effort was to head to the internet and see what was available for reuse. Unfortunately all the references I could find were to the Design Thinking definition, which is quite useful and constructive, it just isn’t entirely accurate to the way we look at these interviews for executive facilitation. So here’s my shot at capturing my intent.

What is an empathy interview in the context of facilitation, from the perspective of the facilitator?

Facilitators are often placed in a very difficult position. We are surrounded with a group of powerful individuals, often each individually capable of making very significant decisions on behalf of their organization, yet we are tasked with helping that group as they find their way to a common path and ensure there’s enough clarity that everybody leaves understanding a similar view of the decision. More importantly, each of these individuals is a human, with all that entails: goals, values, personality, desires, needs, and yes, baggage. Not everybody is comfortable speaking up the same way, and not everybody is equally capable of reflecting carefully in the moment. Yet, somehow, we need for everybody’s voice to be heard, the elephants to be attended to, and the diverse personalities come to something resembling consensus.

One of our critical tools to prepare the ground for successful events is the empathy interview, which we sometimes characterize as “context-gathering” if the word empathy is still scary to an organization. This interview has a few key purposes, which are detailed below. To accomplish these goals, we’ll tend to interview at least one person from each major function represented, and ideally a few more people we expect to be particularly important to the outcomes and dynamics of the session.

  • Get to know the attendees at more than a surface level
  • Understand attendees’ perspectives on the topic at hand
  • Identify the elephants in the room before the event
  • Anticipate the impact of individual personalities on the group dynamic
  • Surface “hidden” agendas that people struggle to articulate
  • Connect to attendees’ individual sense of their organizational role and identity

Finally, where it’s not possible otherwise, the empathy interview may help understand the departmental roles and responsibility. However, much of this “formal” information is easily acquired elsewhere, and can easily break the personal connection if the empathy interview is used for that sort of data gathering.

What is an empathy interview in the context of facilitation, from the perspective of the interviewee?

This being about empathy, it’s important to understand the emotional barriers at hand even before engaging with people in these interviews. Even the word “empathy” can be challenging to people that have been conditioned to leave love in the parking lot, and aren’t used to bringing their whole selves to work. How is it best to convey these sessions to prospective attendees? I tend to use something like this:


I would love to engage for a few minutes to understand your perspectives and hopes ahead of next week’s session. The workshop is consuming the time and focus of a very busy group of people, and we want to ensure that it is as valuable and impactful for everybody involved, and for the company as a whole. To do this, we’d like your permission to set up a private interview to explore your expectations, goals, challenges, and concerns around [topic at hand]. We can also use this as an opportunity to address any questions you might have ahead of the workshop.

I’ll be conducting the interview personally, and [name] will be assisting me as a scribe. All of your responses will be confidential, and will be used only in aggregate to surface patterns and shared concerns across the leadership team during the workshop.

Based on your calendar, I’d like to suggest [day, time] for 15 minutes for this interview.

Thank you!

Now, all you need to do is hold to each aspect of the above email! Treat their time as critical and valuable, focus on the impact and outcome, and keep the empathy interview outcomes explicitly private, no matter who asks for the details. The interview is a wonderful time to set the examples of authenticity, vulnerability, and transparency to the attendees, which in turns leads them to expect the same during the workshop, and be more likely to share similar behaviors.

Even as the organization becomes more conditioned that this is a very effective way to prepare leadership teams for effective collaborative experiences, it’s important to remind attendees that we care deeply about their perspectives and goals, and that cadenced meetings are going to continually evolve and adapt to the leadership team members’ changing needs.


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