We need empathy to be successful in life and work. Our relationships with others – co-workers, friends, siblings, children, partners, parents, etc. – benefit from connection, understanding, and caring actions. In recent years, our understanding of empathy and its benefits have expanded beyond the micro-sphere of individual relationships to a larger sphere of organizational culture and business. According to a recent HBR article and the 2015 Global Empathy Index ratings:
“there is a direct link between empathy and commercial success.”
In this study, the most empathetic companies, as measured by internal culture, social media, company ethics, and CEO performance, generated the most value and revenue growth. In fact, according to a recent Forbes article, empathy moves business forward: “Although the concept of empathy might contradict the modern concept of a traditional workplace—competitive, cutthroat, and with employees climbing over each other to reach the top—
the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.”
In our work with clients, most people understand the concept of empathy – understanding and feeling another person’s experiences and emotions. Yet, many people struggle to know how to improve their empathy skills or even diagnose what went wrong in situations where they either lacked empathy or the other person did not perceive them as being empathetic.
The demand for more empathy exists without a clear path forward for people who want to improve it.
Empathy can be cognitive, emotional, or both
We define empathy as understanding and/or feeling another person’s experiences and emotions. Empathy can be cognitive, emotional, or both. When we strive to understand another person’s point of view, we empathize with them in a cognitive way. This looks like: “I understand what you are feeling and why you feel that way,” with emotional distance. When we physiologically experience what the other person is feeling, such as tearing up as they cry or blushing when they feel embarrassed, we empathize with them emotionally. Recently, Yale researchers have argued that emotional empathy can lead to bias, distraction, or distortion of truth, while cognitive empathy can allow us to understand others’ feelings with some boundaries and distance. For example, when lives are on the line, such as in an operating room or a battlefield, emotional empathy can lead to distraction, even danger. I think that while cognitive empathy in all situations helps individuals be more socially aware and intelligent, the benefits of emotional empathy is more nuanced and perhaps a future topic to explore.
Practical Empathy Guide: a tool for building empathy in life and work
Whether you seek more cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, or both, we have developed a practical empathy tool to help you can use both to assess past situations and plan strategically for new ones. We call it “practical” because we root it in specific behaviors you can practice and develop.
The practical empathy guide includes three defining qualities with associated behaviors. In order to be experienced by another person as empathetic in a situation or moment, we need to be:
Conscious – this means being fully present, focused on the other person, and intentional in our actions and words, as opposed to being distracted, impulsive, or reactionary. Assess: how conscious or present am I, in this moment?
Connected – this means being with the other person, in his/her shoes, showing we care about how they feel through our words and body language. This can look like mirroring their emotions, leaning forward, respectfully touching (if appropriate), taking action on their behalf, sharing ideas or resources that may be helpful . Assess: how connected am I to the other person and actively showing that connection through words or body language?
Curious – this means letting go of preconceived ideas, judgements, opinions, and genuinely trying to understand the perspective of the other person. This looks like actively listening and asking open questions without offering opinions, judgements, or advice. Assess: how open and curious am I about the other person’s point of view and/or feelings?
Using the practical empathy guide, you can diagnose situations that went awry and understand actions you can take to improve your empathy. For example, when a client of ours struggled with receiving low empathy scores on a 360 evaluation, we used this tool swiftly to design a plan for her. In assessing different scenarios, we realized that she lacked curiosity; instead, she jumped in with strong opinions and solutions for her team. Her intentions to help them actually undermined them and made them feel, as reported in the 360, like she did not trust them. She made a plan to practice curiosity by listening and asking open questions; within weeks, she received positive feedback from several members of her team.
You Can Work It
Practical empathy works, especially if you focus on it and actively work it. Try it now. Think of a situation in the recent past with another person that did not turn out as well as you had hoped. Rate how conscious, connected, and curious you were with the other person. What could you have done differently to get a different result?
Now, consider a situation coming up that will benefit from you being more empathetic. Which of these three could support you the most – a focus on being fully present? a specific caring action that will help you be more connected to the person? an attempt to be more curious about the other person’s point of view? Design your plan for how to approach this upcoming situation with a deliberate focus on being empathetic. Then, reflect on what worked for you and the other person. Keep in mind that empathy building takes time and focus and may not always works as planned.
Empathy allows us to build strong relationships with those around us, adapt to other people and new environments, and ultimately be successful in work and life. Consider practical empathy as a new strategy for your success and take the practical empathy guide with you to practice your skills and hone your success.