What is the purpose of empathy in our lives? Empathy is often a word we use in respect to other people and our expectations of them. We make comments like “they don’t have empathy” or “they need empathy.” Sometimes it seems as though we don’t have a deep understanding of what empathy even means to ourselves, let alone what it means to others. But, what if empathy is linked to your emotional intelligence and helps you become the most successful version of yourself?

Empathy Defined
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

For me, short verse, empathy means: being able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. It’s the ability to feel or imagine another person’s experience. It often requires that we learn to suspend judgment and work to understand the other person’s perspective. This becomes most especially important if you don’t agree with or like the other perspective. Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for another, but rather, it’s the ability to feel compassion for what their experience is. Bottom line, it’s finding a way to recognize ‘me,’ ‘in you.’

Emotional Intelligence

Empathy can come off sounding ‘soft’ or unnecessary, especially in business. In reality, empathy is how we recognize emotions in another person. It’s the basis of Emotional Intelligence. Your ability to understand yourself, your emotional landscape, and to then put yourself into another person’s shoes gives you an EQ advantage. And, if you have ever wanted to improve a relationship, the willingness to step out of your own perspective and step into the experience of another person is fundamental. You are required to take your self-centered goggles off and look with new eyes at another perspective.

It’s All Fun and Games Till Someone Gets Hurt

In most relationships, we start off happy with lots of positive expectations. Then, due to the daily hazards of interacting with other people, those positive feelings can erode. We develop habits of interactions, conversations, expectations, and arguments. We build walls against the annoyances, the hurts, and disappointments. As we build walls, we begin to see ourselves as different than others; we can lose the ability to care. It’s our ability to care that allows us access to the other person’s emotional landscape. The loss can cause no end of issues.

You might see others’ motives more harshly or negatively than you would have if you had kept your openness toward them. At the University of Michigan, in an August 2010 study lead by Sarah Konrath, she found that empathy is on the decline. And, while we are hardwired to care, there are social and cultural impacts that can negatively affect our ability to empathize. This decline has ramifications on all your relationships. It impacts work atmospheres, and it affects the bottom line.  Relational wreckage takes time and resources to fix. One positive take away is that what can be unlearned, can also be relearned. What is required is conscious awareness, intention, and practice.


You’re a Salesperson

At this point in my life, I have come to believe everyone is a salesperson. I don’t care what you do for a living, you’re selling something. Some people sell cars, others sell widgets or apps, some sell stories, others sell how to think, or learn, and some sell ideas. I personally sell ideas on how to be a better you.

Consider, what are the internal and external guides that direct you to buy this car, or that widget, or another idea? Often it comes down to relationships, with a person, a business, a feeling, a need, and/or an idea. We are motivated along these lines.  So, let’s say I am a nice person, but I don’t read cues well, and you end up feeling like I don’t get you at all. Are you going to want to give me your business? Maybe once, but to build a brand or to build a business, hopefully, we are thinking a little farther down the road. Relationships are key to success, and empathy is the key to relationships.

Daniel Goldman talks about how in a growing global market, misunderstanding can arise, and people need to be able to either not do damage or know how to read problematic situations, so they can fix it.  Also, how do leaders retain talent if they stomp all over them? That only works if you’re so wildly successful that people will put up with you, are you that kind of successful?  If not, pay attention.

It’s not only about listening to your employee’s or your customers, but it’s about the ability to weigh needs. Good employers take others feelings into account as they are making broader decisions.


5 Ways to Increase Your Empathy

So, what’s a person to do to increase empathy?

Awareness.  In a nutshell, it’s time to wake up.  This means seeing ourselves with clarity.  We all feel things, and awareness means that I need to understand my own emotions.  If I know that I’m happy, annoyed, distracted, angry, or hurt, I can take steps to take care of myself.  Shifting from an egocentric perspective about my feelings into one of “insights” that allow me to access the idea that other people are feeling something too. Our understanding of our emotions helps us to read and understand other peoples’ feelings. Think about it; businesses often handle customers in ways that no individual would enjoy being treated. It isn’t rocket science, it’s actually common sense.  If I were treated the way that I am treating others… how would I react?

Curiosity.  Have you ever had a boss or a co-worker, or heck even a friend, who was terminally set on “output”? It can shut you down if all someone does is talk at you. Empathy is expressed by actually showing interest in what someone else is saying, not just about what you are saying. Take time to ask questions, work on developing an understanding of who they are, remember peoples’ names, remember their families’ names. Showing interest in people matters. I recently read a book called The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane, and she talked about this very thing. Charismatic people show interest in others. You feel like maybe you’re the only one in the room. They are looking at you, listening to you, and responding to you.  We don’t remember what people do, we remember how we feel.

Willingness to Listen.  Steven Covey called it the dialog of the deaf when everyone is talking, but no one is listening.  If you walk through the world and don’t care about the experience of others, then reread the above paragraph.  Empathy is grounded in listening.  We need to be willing to suspend our own voice, perspective, or opinion long enough to really listen to the other person.  Hearing someone is not even close to the same thing as agreement.  So, I am not necessarily agreeing with everything they say, when I listen to understand.  I am just working on really understanding what they mean and where they are coming from.  Listening is as essential a tool as being able to read or write.  Many of the most significant issues I have seen in organizations and systems stem from misunderstanding and a shortage of listening.

Presence. Aka. Nonverbal Body Language.  This really fits with listening, in that we project our feelings by all sorts of nonverbal cues.  We can say, have a nice day, and mean very different things based on tone alone.  Our posture can communicate annoyance or interest.  Especially on the phone, we can hear distraction a mile away.  Yeah, yeah, what, what did you just say???  When we are paying attention and have a goal of curiosity or interest, we communicate that clearly with how we hold ourselves, the types of questions that we ask, the reactions and responses to what is being said.  All this, wrapped up in a bow, is presence.

Openness.  People have different perspectives. We come to life situations from different cultures, experiences, and belief systems.  If I care about XYZ and I want a team or an organization to be successful, I want to hear all the perspectives. Some call this brainstorming, but successful leaders learn to use these differences to make informed changes. It’s essential to ask the quiet folks to speak up.

It’s effortless to get all the extroverts to share, in fact, they will at times overshare, but getting lots of people to share takes paying attention.  Whether we are talking team members or customers, openness means that I want to hear many perspectives, ideas, insights, and opinions.  This enriches our organizations, our teams, and helps us stretch ourselves past the limits that we can create by not entertaining enough ideas.

Lastly, Psychology 101

Basic psychology 101 says we like people who like us… Say that a few times, because it’s crucial. We all feel open and available when we are around people who treat us as important. Not in the “your so amazingly important, Mr. Big Head” sort of way, but rather treat us as though we matter. To do this, it helps to see people as human beings. And, yes, humans have foibles, they aren’t perfect, and still, they deserve to be seen.

Empathy is the pathway to increasing your Emotional Intelligence and having compassion for the people around you. Empathy is easy to overlook, but you do so at your own peril. And anyway, don’t we all need to show up and be a little bit kinder and more empathetic of the human experience that we are all sharing? I would vote yes.

Your Turn...

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!

  • Who is someone who is successful and demonstrates empathy and emotional intelligence?
  • What is one thing you might do to increase your empathy?

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