Why Empathy Matters

Article contributed by Amy Sargent

Not feeling it

She theatrically shared her sob story, voice cracking from the flood of emotion, complete with a long, pregnant pause to regain her composure. I squirmed uncomfortably in my hard, metal seat and inwardly rolled my eyes. Oh, the drama. The presenter struggled through her testimony and I struggled with listening–caring. Her situation seemed easy to me, and not worth the eruption of emotional energy she was giving it.

I turned my head toward my colleague with a smirk, knowing she’d share my lack of enthusiasm at this flagrant show of sentiment. I was surprised to see she had a big, fat tear trickling down her cheek. She quickly brushed it away and reached in her purse for a tissue. As I looked around, I noticed others in the audience sniffling and dabbing their eyes. They, like my colleague, were feeling what the speaker was feeling, displaying compassionate listening skills.

I was not.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to sense others’ feelings and take an active interest in their perspectives and concerns. It’s that ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and respond in a way that creates connection and understanding within your relationship. People who are good at this are able to tune into a wide array of emotional signals. They can sense underlying emotions that the other may be trying to hide. They show sensitivity to how the other is feeling and respond in a way that makes the other person feel understood, valued, and heard.

Those of us who aren’t so good at it tend to be judgmental and stereotype others before we have all the facts. We misunderstand how others are feeling and are quick to evaluate their actions based upon our criteria–not theirs.  As a result, we tend to act in a way that may crush another’s spirit and come across as indifferent or uncaring, which can cripple a relationship.

Before you cast your judgment upon me for my obvious lack of this vital competency of emotional intelligence, know that it reared its ugly head at a time in my life when I was younger, more focused on myself and my needs, with an inability to understand what others were suffering–mainly because I hadn’t lived much of my own life yet. Research shows that when we are in comfortable situations it is more difficult to empathize with someone else’s suffering. “At a neurobiological level – without a properly functioning supramarginal gyrus – the part of the brain that decouples perception of self from that of others  — your brain has a tough time putting itself in someone else’s shoes.”[https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy] .

“Maturity begins to grow when you can sense your concern for others outweighing your concern for yourself.”  — John MacNaughton

Little did I know that just around the corner, I’d soon be in dire need for the empathy I didn’t yet know how to offer others.

Empathy is vital

Learning to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and meaning, without losing the ‘as-if’ mentality — as if the same thing could happen to me — is a skill that is valuable to the health of our relationships.  It enables us to “share experiences, needs, and desires between individuals and providing an emotional bridge that promotes pro-social behavior.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513638/]. Empathy leads to helping shift behaviors which benefit us socially. “When people experience empathy, they are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors that benefit other people. Things such as altruism and heroism are also connected to feeling empathy for others.” [https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-empathy-2795562].

Empathy is considered the missing link when it comes to strong connections in our families, schools, and workplaces. “Without empathy”, says Julie Fuimano,  certified coach, writer and speaker, “people tend to go about life without considering how other people feel or what they may be thinking. We are so limited when we only see our own perspective. Without taking a moment to assess another, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions which leads to misunderstandings, bad feelings, conflict, poor morale, and broken relationships.” [https://www.healthecareers.com/article/healthcare-news/the-importance-of-empathy-in-the-workplace].

It wasn’t but a few short months after that conference that my own set of struggles–which all of us encounter in this thing called life–began to take me down. My emotions were a raw, raucous roller coaster of highs and lows, and I could see no light at the end of the tunnel.  I couldn’t see my way ahead and my days became filled with pretending and my nights filled with worry. I noticed some friends started avoiding me. They’d tell me they were there for me, and some even went so far to say they were praying for me, but they sure didn’t want to hang around me.  I felt alone and questioned my self-worth.

“If there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place and to see things from his point of view — as well as your own.” — Henry Ford

Oh, what I would’ve given for someone to assure me, “Of course you’re feeling that way. I get it.  And it’s OK.” Where were all the empaths when I needed them?! It was as if no one really cared. It’s not surprising that only around 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed toward empathy, based upon a study published in the Brain and Behavior journal. [https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322189.php].  The good news, though, is that empathy is a competency of emotional intelligence, a behavior, and can be learned, even if we our natural tendencies don’t lend toward us shedding tears.

8 Ways to Increase your Empathy

  1.  Work on your listening skills. Listening is key to empathy, so practice quieting your mind when others are talking and really tune in to what they are saying, both verbally and non-verbally.
  2. Go beyond the words. When someone is speaking, search for the meaning behind their words, body language, and approach, to figure out what their underlying purpose and concerns are.
  3. Stop what you’re doing. When someone approaches you to share their heart, try to stop what you’re doing by looking at them, turning away from your computer, and putting down your phone.
  4. Find the emotions. What is the other person feeling?  Try to name the emotions they are experiencing and connect them to your own emotions.
  5. Paraphrase.  Check your understanding of what’s being said by repeating back to them what you think you heard.  “What I heard was…” or “It sounds like you’re….” are great ways to paraphrase what they said.
  6. Withhold judgment. Even if you agree with nothing that was said, try to be supportive of their viewpoint by letting them know you value their opinion.  Let them know that though you may believe differently, you still respect them for the way they are feeling and thinking.
  7. Think back. Reflect upon a time when you were hurting, or struggling with a tough situation.  Do you remember who helped you find your way?  Who was it who made you feel heard and understood, and what did they do to make you feel that way? Attempt to emulate their behavior as you work with others.
  8. Remind yourself that we’re all in this together.  It’s rare that someone close to you can go through a rough time without it affecting you and others.  Consider doing a compassion meditation to develop a greater understanding of how similar we all really are.

My own empathy has grown and developed since those heartless days. And though I have a long way to go, I can say that after years of work, I’m now often the first one crying in the room. If you struggle with empathy, see if you can’t choose just one of the above steps to start practicing this week.  After a few weeks, move on to another step, and so on. Journal about each step and reach out to others to talk about your progress. It takes work, but if you want to have meaningful, deep relationships, and make an impact on others as a leader, it’s a trait worth developing.

Leave a Reply

Upcoming Classes