“Empathy is like a Universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”– Simon Baron-Cohen
Our relationship with others determines much of our happiness and success in life. How you get along with your coworkers, superiors, friends and family often depends on your interpersonal skills, and at the root of good interpersonal skills is empathy which is also is an essential component for leadership. Most of us empathise with other people in variety of situations, but we also fail in some. In a world that spends much time picking at flaws and inciting fear and anger, empathy can help you to build successful relationships at personal, and professional level by understanding other people’s perspectives, needs, intentions and situations. And also the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and understanding another’s emotions plays an important role in building your social relationships.
Some of us are naturally gifted when it comes to being able to relate to others’ experiences while others are naturally lower on empathy scale and are ill-equipped when it comes to understanding other’s needs and emotions. Moreover, many of us tend to consider empathy is only for non-profits and entrepreneurs with idealistic dreams and don’t see its relevance in competitive or workplace environments where there is a need to make most of every opportunity. But if you shift your focus on recognising the benefits of being more empathic, not only you can build better relationships, but also can build smarter and productive workplaces. No matter where you find yourself on the empathy spectrum, like other leadership skills, it can be something that can be practiced and learned overtime. It is also one of the most important interpersonal skill to cultivate, develop and teach others.
So, What specifically empathy is and how it differs from sympathy?
A simple definition of empathy is “the tendency to be psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives.” You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view or until you step into his shoes. It is that understanding what it feels like to be other person, what fears he or she has and what they care about by emotionally connecting and communicating with the other person. Empathy involves the emotional centre of our brain that perceives feelings of others and the cognitive centre that tries to understand why they feel that way and how we can be helpful to them.
Many of us view empathy as being sympathetic with the other person. But empathy differs with sympathy in that it fuels connection whereas sympathy drives disconnection. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone without grasping what that person is really going through or how they are experiencing the world or in other words, it is only interpreting others from our own perspective and not from theirs. Whereas empathy is like other-oriented perspective taking rather than self-oriented perspective taking.
Being empathic is a vulnerable choice one has to make in order to connect with others. And to connect with others, you have to connect with something in yourself that knows that feeling. But one of the things we do in a difficult conversation is we try to make things better, but rarely can a response makes things better. Only connecting to the individual deeply and sharing and understanding their perspective can make things better.
Why practice empathy ?
Many workplace problems stem from lack of perspective-taking or due to an empathy-deficit. In today’s fast-paced world, when we think of productivity, many of us think of meeting deadlines, producing deliverables or effective time-management, but tend to overlook how empathy can help in improving personal or workplace productivity. Here is why it is important to practice empathy.
• It can help in employee engagement, retention and improving their productivity.
• It helps you to understand personal challenges of people on your team or their perspectives on important things.
• When everyone on your team are appreciated and valued for their work, they feel motivated to put in their total effort.
• It improves creativity and innovation. When everyone on your team know that they are understood and valued for the contributions they make, they freely share their ideas and perspectives and take more chances to be innovative.
• Empathy also enhances teamwork competence and a culture of working together with helpful behaviours and by resolving conflicts
• Empathy helps you to understand whether people on your team are task-oriented, people-oriented, outgoing, introverted, feelings-oriented or facts-oriented. Once you know how they are wired, you can attend to their needs, make them feel understood and valued.
• You can build a level of trust that can result improved engagement and increased productivity and build trustworthy and approachable attitude towards to offer support or guidance in getting through their difficult situations.
Why people lack empathy?
Our empathic tendencies mostly depend on our beliefs and values. We tend to have low empathic potential when we are influenced by cognitive biases. These biases can make it difficult to see all the factors that contribute to a situation and make it difficult to see a situation from the perspective of another. Also, when we think that people who are different from us don’t feel and behave the same as we do, we feel less empathic. For instance, when it comes to disaster or a conflict in a distant place, we might lack empathy if we think that those who are suffering are fundamentally different than we are.
Can empathy really be learnt?
All human beings are not created equal when it comes to the capacity of empathy. According to research, in addition to our genetic disposition, there are other factors that influence our capacity to attune to others’ feelings and perspectives. It is possible to expand your empathic potential and can be done so by practicing simple habits that enhance our
• Perspective-taking or to be able to see from others’ perspective.
• Non-judgmental attitude.
• Understanding of others’ feelings, and
• Communication of the understanding of those feelings.
How to expand your empathic potential
To cultivate empathy, you require,
• Self-awareness to better understand yourself, your motives, and your own emotions so as to distinguish between your own feelings and those of others.
• Emotional intelligence to recognise emotions in others as well as oneself, and know-how to manage and regulate them.
• Active listening skills to know and understand another’s perspective.
• Curiosity to be genuinely interested in others.
• Other-oriented perspective taking or setting aside your personal biases, opinions, and agendas and see things from other person’s perspective.
Here are some strategies to cultivate these simple habits to expand your empathic potential.
Develop active listening
Active listening or listening with purpose requires focused attention and concentration towards what is being said rather than just passively hearing. It is also about understanding the entire message that others are communicating. Pay attention to any of the key words and phrases that are being used repeatedly and their non-verbal cues that reveal a great deal about what a person is thinking and feeling. For instance, pay attention to their body language like whether they appear open or guarded. are they angry, guilty or scared to gain a better perspective on what is being communicated.
Active listening is not only about listening but also about empathic conversation and really taking in what the other person is saying. Avoid arguing with what is being said or by disputing facts. Paraphrase what the other person has said. This helps you acknowledge that you are on the same page and that you understand the content. Reflect back your emotional reaction. This helps the person better understand and regulate their own emotion.
Practice being non-judgmental
Being non-judgmental is very important to expand your empathic potential, especially while interacting with someone. Jumping to conclusions rather easily, making up your mind before you hear all the facts, or not even keen on listening to others’ perspectives may hold you back from understanding others. It might get frustrating at times when people struggle to find answers for themselves. However, it is better to resist the temptation to judge or blame and fix them. Being empathic is to provide emotional support and not to judge or blame them.
When we become judgmental, we don’t gain deeper understanding of the person’s perspective or the situation he or she is in. Also People will often hold themselves back from expressing their true feelings or intentions to protect themselves from judgment, criticism, embarrassment or ridicule. By being non-judgmental, you can create a safe environment to share their perspectives and they can trust you to do so. Try to learn more about the person you are empathising with by trying to find things he or she probably has in common with you to build trust and openness.
Consider other’s perspectives
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels that prevents us from knowing and appreciating other’s perspectives. Everyone has their unique set of beliefs and values that influence their opinions and how they interpret the world. These beliefs influence what they say, fear and what they do or avoid doing. They influence whom they trust and how they respond to problems and adversity. Certain experiences might bring emotional baggage that affects their state of mind or how they view themselves and ultimately how they deal with certain events and circumstances.
Before evaluating someone else’s actions or personality, place yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from. Everyone makes choices according to their life circumstances. It is all relative to their story, values, and beliefs. Set aside your own personal biases, opinions, and prejudice to accept others regardless of the differences in your opinions. Challenge your prejudices and preconceptions if you want to be empathetic and look for their true feelings, intentions and motives. By developing a helpful outlook towards others, you can better understand their perspective and thus expand your empathic potential.
The ability to feel empathic requires being genuinely curious about where others are coming from. Reconnect with your inner-child and develop a genuine interest in other people’s life and their well-being, especially people you know nothing about and who are outside of your social circle. If all you care is only about yourself or your own well-being, then you simply don’t have what it takes to develop empathy. Cultivating curiosity requires more than a small-talk and most importantly, try understanding other’s perspectives and views that are different from your own.
Ask Gentle probing questions. help the you to get a sense of their state of mind and how it is affecting them at the present moment. Ask questions with genuine interest to encourage others to open up and to know how they feel about the situation. Incorporate empathy with questions like, “How do you think things are going?” or “ how are things going for you?” This may allow someone to open up about an area in which they are struggling or that which may be hurting their productivity. To begin with a question instead of giving advice or feedback sets the tone of openness. Being empathic towards others is not to provide answers or to fix their problems but rather to help them to find answers for themselves by sharing their perspectives, opinions and feelings.
Raise your emotional quotient
Downside of practicing empathy is that we tend to get emotionally drawn into other person’s beliefs, experiences and in other words, into their world. When you start experiencing their problems or pain, it can become quite overwhelming and may interfere with our quality of life and our ability to help others. So, it’s important to raise your emotional stability to not to get effected by their experiences and to understand their emotional needs and tendencies. You can achieve this by gaining awareness of your own actions, emotional triggers and feelings and how they affect those around you. And in a way, it helps you to value others, listen to their needs and challenges they face so you will be able to empathise with them.
Developing emotional stability capacitates focusing at will and inhibits strong impulses and urges making you better equipped in terms of how to help others in gaining a positive perspective rather than worrying along with them. By managing your emotions in healthy way, you can act thoughtfully and develop the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of others and use that to build better relationships with those around you to help, lead, influence, negotiate or work as a part of team.
Mindfulness is the most effective habit you can develop to expand your empathic potential. Simple practices like bringing attention to one’s breathing or physical sensations, can create compassionate, timeless, worry-free space into our minds. Being mindful to our concerns and emotions makes us more self-aware which in turn helps in raising our emotional quotient. Such inner kindness and awareness naturally leads to greater empathy towards others.
There is no single right way to demonstrate your empathy. It depends on the situation, the individual and their dominant emotions at the time. Empathy is not only for situations of crisis but goes well beyond knowing others’ requirements to truly understanding their hopes, dreams, frustrations, fears, tendencies, and more. Random acts of kindness, giving people your attention, being curious about their goals, life interests or intentions and offering constructive feedback are all part of empathic behaviour.
To understand others from their perspectives in your personal or professional life is one that you can choose all the time. Only by understanding what other person’s state of mind and needs in the situation, you can genuinely offer support they need be it emotional, physical or moral. Being empathic is not just extending the boundaries of your moral values, but also is a habit you can cultivate to improve the quality of your life and of people’s in your personal or professional relationships. Cultivate these simple habits to expand your empathic potential and make it a part of your daily life to help others to move past the obstacles and fears that are holding them back.
“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” – Susan Sarandon