Melissa Bennett-Heinz Of Gestalt Therapy: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Building Trust and Connection: Empathetic leaders can connect with their team on a deeper level, understanding their perspectives, emotions, and needs. This builds trust and fosters positive relationships within the team.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Bennett-Heinz.

Melissa Bennett-Heinz obtained her master’s degree in clinical social work from Columbia University (Class of 2002) and is a graduate of Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy in New York City, NY. In addition to her background in Gestalt Therapy, she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the esteemed conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, in New York City, where she majored in Oboe Performance. Melissa is a licensed clinical social worker and Gestalt psychotherapist in private practice and has over 20 years of specialized training and experience in the treatment of addiction, PTSD, sexual trauma, childhood abuse, chronic mental illness, and mood and anxiety disorders and primarily works with adult men and women in both individual and group settings with people who are highly educated and successful, C-Suite executives who appear to have it together and are “happy” but are stuck in old relational patterns, struggle with perfectionism, relationships, and codependency.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I grew up in a family of classical musicians, the youngest of four children. I attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, intending to win a principal oboe position with a symphony orchestra. Just before my college graduation, my mother passed away suddenly. A year later, while pursuing my graduate degree at MSM, I lost a dear loved one to suicide, and my father died a short time later. I had struggled for many years with episodes of depression and anxiety, feeling quite isolated, and I carried a sense of deep shame. Just before the death of my mom, I began seeing a therapist for the first time. For 10 years, I tried working with several therapists with varied expertise and theoretical approaches (psychodynamic, CBT, DBT, eclectic), but they never seemed to help much. I wasn’t happier. Life wasn’t easier. I felt disconnected, lost, lonely, and filled with shame. I went through more than a decade of therapy and not much changed in my life. It was when I discovered Gestalt therapy that things shifted. I had completed graduate school and was working at my first job as a therapist in community mental health. My clinical supervisor at that time led me to Gestalt as it was through her eyes that she saw in me what turned out to be a beautiful fit for this particular type of therapy.

Alongside my love of music, helping others and being of service had been lifelong interests, so I pursued a second master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Yet it wasn’t until I completed graduate school that I was introduced to the Gestalt method by my first clinical supervisor, who used the approach to guide the way she lived her life and our work together. That’s when I consider Gestalt Psychotherapy to have found me. I went on to complete the clinical fellowship program and certification at Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy in New York.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One interesting experience I had since beginning my career was getting sick with a cancer scare. It started with a fever and the symptoms compiled from there, I couldn’t get out of bed, I had no appetite, and I was in excruciating pain for a couple of months. I received negligent care from doctors and hospitals and had to do my research on my symptoms, schedule my tests, and eventually had to search for an oncologist on my own. After a battery of tests and a major surgery that had several potential life-altering consequences, I found out I was not facing cancer. This experience terrified me on so many levels. One, I was afraid to NOT to be working as I knew I would not be able to support my family for long lying in bed. Next, I had not been prepared well for taking care of this part of my life and quite honestly, had avoided looking at it as I didn’t know any other way. I was in fear of ultimately losing my business and home. When I was well enough to sit up and work for a few hours, I felt resentful that I had to work and fake that I was well enough to do so. Thirdly, this sacrifice I was making of my own needs to attend to my practice and patients was not appreciated. You know that saying, “No good deed goes unpunished? Well, this was yet another example of this being true. I knew something had to change. After I recovered from surgery and gained my strength back, I was inspired, rejuvenated, and ready to put my needs first and foremost, every single day. I learned how to attach a monetary value to my services that were what I needed to live and sustain my lifestyle. I learned to separate my own learned narrative about success, worth, and value from my business practices and began to get very clear and set different boundaries from what I had been taught from my family of origin, but also society, culture, and my profession. I began to think of my business as a living thing that has needs and since I am not only at the helm, but I am the business and brand, I have to be well taken care of so that I can continue and thrive. In doing all of this, I am more satisfied in the work I do, and more fulfilled in every aspect of my life, and the understanding that my needs must come first has only been reinforced as I continue to heal, rejuvenate, and become expansive. I do now show up feeling resentful any longer. No day is wasted, and no amount of health and time is taken for granted. I work hard but not to the detriment of my existence. I also play and rest every single day. I take breaks and time off. In turn, my work as a psychotherapist is more grounded, present, centered, and focused

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes my company stand out from others is the ongoing commitment to the company values which are present in every interaction and relationship with my patients. I am deeply committed to a dialogic approach based in the relationship without judgement. I am in a continual process of learning and in a growth model of change. I engage on a regular basis of personal and professional growth which contribute to my role as a psychotherapist and am committed to an evidence-based practice that I being to each and every action and interaction.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I love this question and it’s not an easy one to answer when narrowed down to three. Three character traits that are instrumental to success in my business are resilience, authenticity, and integrity. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, overcome challenges, and persevere in the face of adversity. An example of resilience in my business came when I restructured my business from an insurance-based practice to private pay, and lead it to recovery and growth despite significant challenges. Authenticity is crucial in my business leadership as it fosters trust, credibility, and meaningful connections with employees, customers and stakeholders. In my work, which is rooted in Gestalt theory, is a genuine presence in which openness and honesty are required. I show up whole heartedly with each person I sit with, and they feel, as it is reflected back, that I am a real human, someone that is relatable and safe. Lastly, integrity is the quality of being honest, ethical, and principled in one’s actions and decisions, even when faced with difficult choices. An example of integrity in my business is the way I upholds my professional high ethical standards, prioritizing transparency, and fostering a culture of trust and accountability within the organization.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

This is a fantastic question and a special area of interest of mine, especially when talking about private practice in healthcare. An example of a choice between two apparently good paths as a business leader was when I recognized that the practice I had built and successfully ran for years, was not going to be sustainable much longer and was leading me to a direct line of burnout (very common in my field). I had to take a lot of risk in jumping ship of operating an insurance-based practice, which in many ways offered security, to focusing on restructuring to a model that could be consistently successful and generate a greater steady revenue.

As a business leader faced with this hard choice, I needed to carefully evaluate the potential benefits, risks, and long-term implications of saying on the same course or restructuring. There were many factors to consider such as market trends, customer needs, competitive landscape, financial resources, and the company’s overall strategic goals. Ultimately, the decision required balancing the potential rewards of change with the necessity of maintaining a revenue stream and ensuring business sustainability. It involved weighing short-term gains against long-term growth and making a strategic choice that aligned with the company’s vision, values, and objectives.

The choice sounds simple and somewhat computational but one that required me to challenge a lot of my beliefs and thinking, some known, and some out of my awareness. I had to seek out professional help from a therapist to look at the money story and mindset, and explore parts of me that were shaped long ago from my family of origin, gender society, and my profession. All of this investment and willingness resulted in massive personal and professional growth that informs my work and interactions each day in my presence, confidence in my leadership skills, and empowers me to support others.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathy in a leadership context can be defined as the ability of the leader to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of their team members. It involves actively listening to others, recognizing and validating their emotions, and showing compassion and support. A leader who exhibits empathy is able to build strong relationships, foster a positive work environment, and make decisions that take into consideration the well-being of their team.

Empathy in leadership is vital because it helps to create more inclusive and supportive work environment. When a leader is empathetic towards their team members, it fosters trust, understanding, and collaboration among team members. This can lead to improved communication, increased morale, and higher levels of engagement and productivity. Empathy also allows a leader to better address the needs and concerns of their team members, leading to stronger relationships and a more cohesive team. Ultimately, empathy in team leadership helps to create a positive and empowering workplace culture where everyone feels valued and supported.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I strive in my presence as a leader to be empathic first, to know what someone is going through, how they are feeling, what might be going that I know nothing about, and what is their experience of any given situation and seek to understand. Of course, I sometimes have to sort through my own experience and feelings first, gain a deeper understanding and provide empathy to myself first before I can give this to someone else. I am a human who is hopelessly flawed. I believe that all humans are flawed. I have had several experiences where I could be expansive in my experience and consider the other and this has served me repeatedly. I had a situation with a bookkeeper who over time, appeared to be less available, less attentive, and began missing things that were affecting my books and numbers. The profound impact of my ability to willing to empathize first, be curious, and ask brought to light of a sudden and severe loss that had been affecting her for months. I recognized the importance of providing support and in turn, this strengthened the connection and lead to repair and ongoing collaboration.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Empathic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions by approaching the situation with compassion, transparency, and clear communication. They acknowledge and validate the emotions of their team members, showing that they care and empathize with how they might be feeling. However, they also explain the rationale behind their decisions, outlining the bigger picture and the reasons the tough choices need to be made.

By being honest and open, empathic leaders can help their team members understand the context and importance of the decision, even if it may not be popular. They involve their team in the decision-making process where possible, seeking feedback and input to demonstrate that their opinions are valued. Additionally, empathic leaders provide support and encouragement during times of change or challenges, showing that they are there to help their team navigate through difficult circumstances.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences, especially in a leadership context. Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings and perspectives of others, putting oneself in their shoes to truly connect and relate to their emotions. It requires active listening, perspective-taking, and a genuine effort to comprehend and validate the experiences of others.

On the other hand, sympathy involves feeling compassion and sorrow for someone else’s difficult situation without necessarily understanding or sharing their emotions. It is more about showing care and concern from a compassionate distance rather than fully immersing oneself in the other person’s feelings.

In leadership, empathy is a more valuable quality as it allows leaders to build deeper connections with their team members, foster trust and understanding, and make decisions that consider the well-being of others. Empathy enables leaders to create a supportive and inclusive work environment where team members feel heard, valued, and respected.

Sympathy, while well-intentioned, may not always lead to the same level of understanding and connection that empathy can provide. Thus, empathic leadership, characterized by genuine empathy towards team members, is more likely to cultivate strong relationships, enhance teamwork, and drive positive outcomes in the workplace.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

Leaders can employ several practical strategies to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills:

1. Active Listening: Practice active listening by giving your full attention to team members, acknowledging their feelings, and responding with empathy.

2. Perspective-taking: Put yourself in the shoes of others to understand their experiences, emotions, and perspectives.

3. Build Relationships: Take the time to get to know your team members on a personal level, show genuine interest in their well-being, and create a supportive environment.

4. Practice Emotional Intelligence: Develop self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management to navigate emotions effectively in leadership situations.

5. Seek Feedback: Encourage open communication and feedback from team members to understand their needs, concerns, and perspectives better.

6. Lead by Example: Demonstrate empathy in your actions, decisions, and interactions with others to set a positive tone for the team.

7. Offer Support: Provide guidance, encouragement, and assistance to team members during challenging times, showing that you care about their well-being.

8. Empower Others: Empower team members by giving them autonomy, responsibility, and opportunities for growth and development.

9. Practice Mindfulness: Cultivate mindfulness practices to stay present, focused, and attentive to the emotions and experiences of others.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy plays a crucial role in helping leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensuring inclusivity. Empathy allows leaders to understand and appreciate the diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences of team members. By acknowledging and respecting these differences, leaders can create a more inclusive and supportive environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Empathy helps leaders build trust and strong relationships with team members, regardless of their differences. By demonstrating care, understanding, and compassion, leaders can foster a sense of belonging and connection within the team, promoting collaboration and teamwork. Empathy also enables leaders to address the individual needs, concerns, and challenges of team members from diverse backgrounds. By showing empathy and offering support tailored to each person’s unique circumstances, leaders can create a more inclusive and accommodating work environment. Empathetic leaders additionally create a psychologically safe space where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of judgment or bias. This promotes open communication, collaboration, and innovation within diverse teams. Empathy allows leaders to appreciate and encourage diversity of thought within their teams. By valuing and incorporating different perspectives and ideas, leaders can foster creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills among team members from diverse backgrounds. Empathy helps leaders navigate conflicts and challenges that may arise within diverse teams with sensitivity and understanding. By approaching difficult situations with empathy and emotional intelligence, leaders can resolve conflicts, build consensus, and maintain a positive team dynamic. Overall, empathy acts as a powerful tool for leaders to navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity by promoting understanding, trust, respect, and collaboration among team members from different backgrounds.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

To ensure that succession planning is a holistic process and not confined to upper management, leaders can take the following steps:

  • Identify Key Roles Across All Levels: Start by identifying critical roles at various levels of the organization, not just in upper management. Consider roles that are essential for the organization’s success and growth, including frontline positions, mid-level managers, and specialized roles.
  • Develop a Talent Pipeline: Create a talent pipeline by identifying high-potential employees at all levels of the organization. Provide opportunities for growth, development, and mentorship to prepare them for future leadership roles.
  • Implement Succession Plans at Every Level: Develop succession plans for key positions across different levels of the organization, not just in top management. Identify potential successors, assess their readiness, and provide them with opportunities to gain experience and skills needed for higher-level roles.
  • Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Ensure that succession planning efforts prioritize diversity and inclusion by considering candidates from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Promote a culture that values and supports diversity in leadership succession.
  • Encourage Cross-Functional Development: Encourage employees to gain experience and skills beyond their current roles through cross-functional projects, job rotations, and training opportunities. This helps build a diverse skill set and prepares individuals for future leadership positions.
  • Foster a Culture of Learning and Growth: Create a culture that values continuous learning, development, and growth at all levels of the organization. Provide resources and support for employees to enhance their skills, knowledge, and abilities.
  • Regularly Review and Update Succession Plans: Periodically review and update succession plans to ensure they remain relevant and aligned with the organization’s strategic goals and changing workforce dynamics. Solicit feedback from key stakeholders and adjust plans as needed.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Building Trust and Connection: Empathetic leaders can connect with their team on a deeper level, understanding their perspectives, emotions, and needs. This builds trust and fosters positive relationships within the team.

2 . Effective Communication: Empathy enables leaders to communicate with compassion and understanding. They listen actively, validate others’ feelings, and tailor their messages to resonate with team members, leading to clearer and more effective communication.

3 . Enhanced Collaboration and Teamwork: Leaders who demonstrate empathy create a supportive and inclusive work environment where team members feel valued and appreciated. This encourages collaboration, cooperation, and synergy among team members.

4 . Better Decision-Making: Empathetic leaders consider the impact of their decisions on others and take into account the emotions and perspectives of team members. This leads to more thoughtful, considerate decision-making that considers the well-being of the team.

5 . Employee Engagement and Motivation: Empathy fosters a sense of belonging and psychological safety within the team. When employees feel seen, heard, and understood by their leaders, they are more engaged, motivated, and committed to their work.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

While empathic leadership has numerous benefits, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of that can be managed by being mindful. First, emotional burnout occurs when we are constantly absorbing and empathizing with the emotions and experiences of others can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout for empathic leaders. It is essential to set boundaries, practice self-care, and seek support when needed. Second, empathic have to make tough decisions and these tough decisions could potentially impact their team members negatively. Balancing empathy with objectivity and strategic thinking is key to making sound decisions. Third, empathic leaders who are overly trusting and compassionate may be more vulnerable to manipulation or taking advantage of by others who exploit their empathic nature for personal gain. Next, in an attempt to be understanding and supportive, empathic leaders may avoid holding team members accountable or addressing performance issues effectively. It’s important to strike a balance between empathy and accountability. Fifth, empathic leaders may find it challenging to navigate conflicts within the team, as they strive to maintain harmony and avoid confrontation. Developing conflict resolution skills and assertiveness is crucial for effective leadership. Sixth, empathy can potentially lead to emotional bias, where decisions are influenced by personal feelings rather than objective factors. It’s important for empathic leaders to remain self-aware and seek diverse perspectives to make well-informed decisions. Finally, empathic leaders may become overly involved in their team members’ personal or professional challenges, which can blur boundaries and impact their ability to lead with objectivity and clarity to mitigate these pitfalls, empathic leaders should practice self-awareness, establish clear boundaries, seek feedback, maintain a balance between empathy and objectivity, and continuously develop their leadership skills. By being mindful of the potential challenges of empathic leadership, leaders can harness the power of empathy while navigating the complexities of leadership effectively.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

What keeps me up are the things I bypass throughout the day. It may be an interaction, something I heard, an action either I or someone else took that affected me and I didn’t take the time to notice or attend to myself. Unprocessed emotions from the day seem to find their way to the surface when I lay my head down to rest.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement of courage and bravery in relationships with one another in the world, a place designed to build a connection between people. I felt lonely and isolated for too many years, stuck in my fear, and shame, and entrenched in the hustle culture. I missed out on a lot of connection and joy. I hear so many people express feelings of loneliness, stress, and isolation and I wish I could introduce my patients to each other. What is missing and what has been accentuated with what technology has brought to our lives is connection. We have lost the ability to be present with each other. From sharing such a space or being with another person emerges the possibility of empathy, understanding, and connection — the opposite of loneliness and isolation. In this space, people would take the time to hear another’s story, see another human’s eyes, take in body language, notice facial gestures, and stay present in the moment, together. From experiences and connections such as these, people would begin to imagine and remember that while we each have different stories, we experience similar feelings, and, as a result, we would potentially diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation. We would return to a place of togetherness, a sense of community, a feeling that we are not alone, but rather, there is solidarity and unity.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I would be delighted for everyone to visit my website at I regularly update it with a new blog post that I would love for you to read. I also have a LINKEDIN profile at

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.