What is empathy?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings.
Demonstrating empathy allows you to build connections with others as you show that you understand their perspective.
These connections grow stronger the more you practice empathy because you become better at understanding how your actions may impact others and develop a better world view, as you connect with more people with different backgrounds and perspectives.
Empathy vs Sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably but there is a stark difference between the two. They both share the suffix pathy, which means emotion or feelings, but whilst we know empathy refers to understanding and experiencing someone else’s feelings, sympathy encompasses feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s situation.
The key difference here is connection
Empathising with someone requires emotional connection and a deeper understanding of what is happening in order to truly share their feelings. We provide space for them to feel their emotions and allow them to feel heard.
“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” – Dr. Brené Brown
Brene brown highlights that sympathy drives disconnection because it prevents you from properly relating to the person’s situation. You feel bad for them, but you only have a surface level understanding. You are much more likely to express judgement and give unsolicited advice of what you would do, even though this may not be appropriate or relevant to the person’s situation.
There are times when sympathy is the appropriate response. If you know that a colleague has experienced a loss, then you may show your sympathy by writing a short card. In this case, sympathy allows you to express that you are thinking about the person whilst still maintaining some distance between yourself and the situation.
The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace
Using empathy to reduce the distance between yourself and your colleagues will help you to build stronger relationships which increases overall wellbeing. Additionally, empathy is a key business skill that benefits retention, drives effective collaboration and boosts creativity and innovation.
You are better at understanding what your clients think and feel, allowing you to view your service from their perspective which can help you to identify new strategies and opportunities or recognise challenges that you hadn’t previously noticed.
Empathy is particularly useful when others are experiencing negative emotions, perhaps you have an unhappy client or a colleague in crisis. Actively listening and empathising with these emotions shows them that you value them and what they have to say, and in return they are more likely to be open to your suggestions.
Growing Empathy as a Skillset
Empathy is difficult. It may be uncomfortable and it requires vulnerability to listen to others without judgement and see yourself in their shoes.
The best way to build empathy is to practice actively listening. Focus on fully understanding what the other person is trying to communicate before thinking of your response. Read between the lines to understand the nuance that is being conveyed behind their words and pay attention to their non-verbal cues such as tone, body language and facial expressions. Do you understand their thoughts, emotion and perspective?
Once you understand these three key elements you can focus on seeing the situation from their point of view and paraphrase what they have said back to them to let them know that they have been heard.
Step out of your comfort zone and talk to new people, visit new places and read widely to expand your understanding of a diverse range of perspectives. Talking about the importance of empathy with your colleagues also helps to signal its value and prompt others to look in to how they can develop more empathy themselves.
Leading with Empathy
New research shows that empathy is the most valued leadership trait. However, 79% of CEOs say that they struggle to be empathetic whilst 77% of CEOs worry that they will lose respect if they’re too empathetic.
Employees who felt their leaders demonstrated empathy felt that they were respected and were more likely to remain at their current job than those who felt their leaders did not demonstrate empathy.
Whilst it can be more time consuming and challenging to be empathetic as a leader in the short-term, the long-term reward is much greater. In reality, leaders who are able to effectively build and maintain connections contribute massively to retaining talent, increasing productivity and are invaluable assets to their organisation.
Empathy is a critical skill
In conclusion, empathy is a critical skill for personal and professional growth. It helps to build strong connections, increase overall wellbeing, and drive innovation and collaboration in the workplace. While empathy can be challenging and uncomfortable to practice, it is an essential skill that can be developed through active listening, stepping out of one's comfort zone, and connecting with people from diverse backgrounds.
Empathy is also a valuable leadership trait, with leaders who demonstrate empathy being more likely to retain talent and improve productivity. The importance of empathy in today's world cannot be overstated, and it is up to each individual to work on developing their empathy skills.
Building Real Empathy In Your Organisation
Need some support building empathy in your teams and your leaders? Drop us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about empathy and request some tips from our Empathy Espresso session.