As more organizations take emotional intelligence or EQ training seriously, there’s a growing appreciation that empathy is an integral part of the workplace. Empathy, after all, holds the potential to open doors and perhaps more importantly, to keep doors open. But what is empathy, what is empathy training, and why does it matter?
First, it is important to distinguish empathy from sympathy. Sympathy is offered when we imagine how something is impacting another person. For example, when a friend or colleague’s spouse, partner, parent or close relative dies, we express our sympathies—as if to say, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss,” or “I know you’re going through a difficult time.” Sympathy may be associated with feeling pity for another person. When we donate money to a charity or emergency fund, it is a feeling of sympathy that typically drives us. In this sense, however, sympathy can also function as a way to distance us from another person’s suffering or misfortune.
By contrast, empathy is about putting ourselves into another person’s shoes. It’s about seeing things from another person’s perspectives. In order to be truly empathetic, then, it’s critical to let go of one’s own egotistic and narcissistic tendencies. True empathy is achieved when we push our own needs, biases and assumptions into the background and let the other’s person’s situation move to the foreground. In a nutshell, it’s about sidelining our own concerns and de-emphasizing our worldview.
Like all forms of emotional intelligence, some people may be more naturally empathetic than others, but this is not to say that we can’t increase our empathy. Indeed, whether you are employed as a customer service representative and charged with the task of de-escalating angry callers or you’re in a leadership position, empathy is integral and arguably something we can always continue to develop.
1. For starters, it is important to learn how to see things from the other person’s perspective. Don’t assume that people are just stubborn or ill informed. Start every conversation on the premise that we can only enter dialogues based on what we already know. Accept this reality and move on, and avoid judging other people’s starting points. Assume everyone is open to learning and expanding their knowledge and their worldview.
2. Validate other people’s perspectives even if they don’t intersect with your own worldviews. While this can be challenging, especially when another person’s perspectives include religious or political views that contradict with your own views or even invalidate your identity or lifestyle, being truly empathetic means attempting to understand why they hold these views in the first place.
3. Discover what common ground you already share. Once again, while this may be challenging, especially when there are fundamental differences that separate you from each other, take time out to evaluate why you hold your own perspectives. For example, question your priorities (e.g., do you consider being right more important than building strong relationships and if so, is this the best practice for you and your organization?).
4. Talk less and listen more. Listen to what people are saying—even when they stop speaking. In other words, learn to listen to people’s words and their silences. If someone stops talking, ask why, or let them remain silent for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Don’t assume silence necessarily means the conversation is over. Indeed, in some cultures, long periods of silence are common and even expected. Also, learn to listen to other types of communication (e.g., body language). Listening and empathy, after all, go hand in hand.
5. Be curious and ask questions. If you do not understand something, ask. If you need further clarification, ask. If you want the other person to keep talking about something that seems especially important, ask. Asking questions is vital. It is also the best way to express true curiosity in the other. For this reason, also try to avoid asking loaded or leading questions. After all, the point is to put yourself into the other person’s shoes rather than put them into your shoes. In other words, keep your questions open, neutral and generative.