Why show empathy, anyway?

Article contributed by Amy Sargent

We hear a lot about the need for empathy. Empathy is that ability to sense others’ feelings and to take an active interest in their perspective and concerns. People who are good at this listen for the unspoken emotions in a conversation. They are attentive to a wide range of emotional signals which clue them in to being sensitive to understanding what the other person really wants and needs.

“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

Those who struggle with empathy — and this may be you — have a hard time reading people and picking up on what they are thinking and feeling. They tend to be literal in hearing only the words which someone says and don’t know how to decipher the other communication that is going on through facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc. People with low empathy tend to stereotype others based upon outward appearances and show little deference to others’ opinions and ways of thinking. An unempathetic person can come across indifferent and uncaring.

Why does this matter in the workplace? A Gallup study done in 2015 reported that about 50% of the 7,200 adults surveyed left a job “to get away from their manager.” The study also found that employees whose bosses communicated with them directly and regularly (up to 3 times per week) — not just about work issues but who took an interest in their personal lives — felt more enthusiastic and dedicated to their work. But a lack of empathy — a boss that doesn’t show that he/she cares — can result in company money down the drain. In an article by Suzanne Lucas in CBS News’ Moneywatch (November 21, 2012), she wrote, “For all jobs earning less than $50,000 per year, or more than 40 percent of U.S. jobs, the average cost of replacing an employee amounts to fully 20 percent of the person’s annual salary.” She also shared that in lower-paying jobs (under $30k), the cost to lose an employee is only 16% of their salary — but still. Those dollars add up.

And what about outside of the workplace? “Empathy is truly the heart of the relationship,” said Carin Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Without it, the relationship will struggle to survive.” In his book Social Intelligence, author Daniel Goleman writes: “Our experience of oneness – a sense of merging or sharing identities – increases whenever we take someone else’s perspective and strengths the more we see things from their point of view. The moment when empathy becomes mutual has an especially rich resonance.” (Social Intelligence, Goleman, p. 110)

“Relationships often suffer because people get so caught up in their own experience that they simply can’t relate to what someone else is going through. They assert their opinions and hand out advice – all the while not truly appreciating the other person’s struggles.” – Leslie Becker -Phelps, Ph.D.

People with empathy are able to show a sensitivity to what the other person is going through and take action to help make the situation more tolerable for that person. Empathy truly is one of the ways we can begin to connect deeply with others.

I know it all sounds good. We should be more empathetic. But showing empathy is easier for some than others. If you come up on the short stick of empathy, do you just shrug and say, “Oh well. I’m no good at that.”? Empathy is a competency of emotional intelligence, specifically, social intelligence, the ability to discern others’ emotions in the moment and respond accordingly. Empathy is a behavior, and the good news for those of us who struggle with it, behavior can be changed. If you are self-aware enough to realize you may not be the most empathetic person, here are some developmental tips you can try to begin to make a shift in a new direction:

  • Listen. Becoming a good listener is the foundation. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and really tune in to what the other person is saying — and not saying.
  • Ask questions to clarify meaning. Sure, you heard what you think you heard, but asking a few questions not only shows the other person you are interested in learning more but provides clarity to truly understanding what they are trying to express.
  • Put down that phone. When someone’s talking, it’s easy to be distracted by other things going on around you. Let’s be honest, people don’t always pick the most opportune times to walk into your office to talk. Show them respect by putting away distractions while they’re speaking — put down your cell phone (and turn it over so you’re not tempted by the screen or even better, turn it off), close your laptop, and make eye contact as they speak.
  • Tune into the emotions behind the words. Sometimes what the person across from you is really looking for in a conversation is masked behind their words. Listen deeply to find the real meaning behind what is coming out of their mouths.
  • Suspend judgement. You may possess the gift of keen discernment and have that ability to pick up on the subtle nuances of what someone is trying to communicate, but with that can come the ability to pass judgement too quickly. Catch yourself if you are quick to criticize or dismiss the opinions of others. Often the other perspective can offer you fresh insights which you may not have been able to come up with yourself.

Though growing in empathy can take some work, your efforts can lead you down the path of healthier, happier relationships, both at home and at the office. If you feel you need some help, consider employing a social + emotional intelligence coach to walk alongside you on the journey.

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

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