Empathy is a funny thing. It’s one of the most important—if not the most important—abilities a person can have across professional and personal contexts. It’s the key to happy relationships and effective leadership. It’s a concept many people are educated about early in life—I mean, it’s at the foundation of the Golden Rule.
But frankly, it’s something most of aren’t very good at.
To be clear, many of us think we have it, but we often confuse sympathy for empathy. There is a distinct difference between the two—but I’ll get to that a bit later.
First, I want to ask you a few questions. Let’s get introspective for a moment.
- How many people can you say genuinely know you, and know what’s going on in your life? Maybe it’s a handful of people, or just one or two people—or perhaps you feel like no one truly knows you.
- Next, consider how many people can you say the same about you—who do you really, sincerely know inside and out? If you’re fortunate, you may have one or more best friends, maybe a partner or family member—someone you’re totally vulnerable with, and someone who’s completely open with you.
- Now, think about all the people you wish you knew better, and the people you wish knew you in the same way. I’m guessing you don’t know as much about the people around you as you’d like. Maybe there are friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even people close to you you’d like to know better. And you probably know even less about the people your business serves.
How do these questions make you feel? When I think about my own answers, I feel lucky for the people in my life I have deep relationships with, but I also feel a little lonely and frustrated. There are so many people I wish I knew better, and a good number of people I wish knew me better. I can imagine how much happier we’d all be if we had those connections, and I’m guessing there are billions of people out there who feel more or less the same.
So, what’s getting in the way? If we all want better, more authentic connections, why can’t we just make them happen?
It’s because empathy isn’t automatic. It’s a skill—one that not everyone has learned, one that needs to be developed and honed and practiced daily. And most of us (myself included) can stand to learn it better and practice it more.
Let’s get to it. In this article, we are going to talk about:
- What empathy is
- Why empathy is important for your business
- How to become a more empathetic person
- How to encourage your team to practice empathy in your business
Keep reading if you’re looking to gain the benefits that this soft skill can have in both your personal and professional life.
Table of contents
A story about empathy
According to an empathy expert and researcher, professor Brené Brown, empathy is the ability to feel with someone else. Practicing empathy requires that you get a bit vulnerable, open yourself up, and feel with the other person rather than feeling sorry for the other person.
According to Brown and other experts on empathy, the difference between empathy and sympathy looks like this:
The difference between empathy and sympathy
Imagine you come across another person having a tough moment. That moment looks like a deep dark hole in the ground. Sympathy would be walking up to that hole, looking down into the hole, shouting you’re sorry, and throwing a snack down for the other person. You’re not making a genuine connection. Your snack solution might nourish them for a fleeting moment, but it doesn’t help them get out of their dark hole.
Sympathy would be saying “at least your hole isn’t filled with water!” There’s no pointing out the silver lining when you’re trying to practice empathy. Negating someone’s feelings with how things could be worse diminishes the very real struggles that person is having.
Empathy, or feeling with the other person, looks like you crawling down inside that hole, telling the other person that you’ve been there before and that they are not alone in those feelings, whatever those feelings may be—anger, frustration, sadness, or despair. The vulnerable part means you must open yourself up to remember a moment when you felt that way—when you found yourself down inside the dark hole in the ground.
For solutions-oriented people, practicing empathy can be a genuine challenge. Consider what empathy is not:
- Empathy isn’t doing whatever you can to make things better. It’s more about listening and being present.
- Empathy is not offering rapid-fire solutions. Empathy is connecting with that person— getting into the hole with that person and finding a way out together. The connection you create, not your litany of ideas to solve their problems or fix their feelings, is the real “solution,” because it makes things better for the other person in their present moment.
Feeling with someone means giving them the space to express their feelings or whatever is going on behind those feelings without rushing in with apologies and solutions.
Growing up, did your parents ever say something like, “don’t judge someone unless you’ve first walked a mile in their shoes?” That was your their way of trying to teach you empathy.
empathy is a difficult skill to teach. You can’t really explain it. A better approach would be to model empathy yourself.
And that brings us to your business. In your role at your company, one of the best ways to get your team members to practice empathy with your clients and customers is to model empathy. Being empathetic toward your employees will improve your relationship with your team members, create a more motivating work environment, and boost employee loyalty. It’s a core component of helping employees feel connected to you and your business.
Why empathy matters
Many people don’t grow up learning how to express and regulate their emotions. Many households don’t talk about feelings and emotions. Men especially are conditioned not to express their emotions from a young age. Remember when I said empathy means getting a little vulnerable yourself? You can’t practice empathy if you can’t understand and regulate your own emotions. Empathy takes work, and it takes practice. Becoming an empathetic person means getting a better understanding of your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. That’s not easy, but it’s worth it for you, your relationships, and your business.
There are many reasons why people might struggle with showing empathy. Whatever those reasons might be, the good news is that it’s never too late to start building empathy.
Empathy is relevant because what is going on in our lives affects us at work. Connecting with empathic people around us helps us work through the things happening in our lives, making our lives easier and less stressful. When things are less stressful for your employees, they can focus on being valuable and productive for your business.
As a business leader, showing empathy elevates you from simply being the “boss” to acting as a true leader in your organization.
As a bonus, it benefits the people you serve, too. The best way to motivate your team to be more empathetic to your customers’ and clients’ needs is to practice building more empathy for your employees.
The evidence demonstrating what empathy can do for your business
Researchers have found that focusing on practicing empathy will increase your employees’ helping behavior. Your business can connect with and help more customers by boosting everyone’s empathy capabilities. There is value for your business in taking time to help your employees increase their empathy. We know that connecting with people on a deeper level increases sales and leads for your business.
Another study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that organizations with leaders who demonstrated empathy found an increase in effective communication and positive outcomes in the workplace. Employees with empathic leaders became higher-performing team members.
The bottom line is empathy helps you put yourself in your customers’ and your employees’ shoes. Building empathy helps your business develop products and services your customers need. With empathy, you can support your employees better while they are meeting the needs of your customers.
How to practice empathy: 4 tips
Social scientists like Dr. Brown have developed actionable steps you can take to practice being an empathetic person.
“Practice” is the key word here. Empathy is a soft skill you build through practice, and everyone needs this practice.
Here are four areas where you can practice and develop your empathy:
1. Take on another perspective.
This means that you practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You might imagine a time where you felt similar or went through something similar. Seeing something from their point of view is the most painful part of the process because it requires that you become vulnerable and remember the painful situations you’ve experienced. Taking someone else’s perspective helps you avoid judging them because you know you’ve been there before.
2. Stay out of judgment.
This is often easier said than done. We’ve all jumped to conclusions about someone’s life before. We’re only human! Focusing on the other person’s feelings and removing your judgment will help you respond more empathetically to another person’s dark moments. We also don’t want to minimize what they are feeling to protect ourselves from these strong emotions. Saying things like “that’s not that bad” invalidates what the other person is going through.
3. Recognize their emotions.
This is a crucial check-in point. Name the feelings you are seeing and check with the person to see if you are correct. Recognizing that someone has feelings and emotions about something going on in their life and validating those feelings helps them feel understood and less alone.
4. Communicate understanding.
Here is where the connection deepens. You communicate your understanding and validation of the other person’s feelings. You might even ask the person to tell you more about it.
Implementing and practicing these four steps will frame your response to an issue that someone is having. A position of empathy and understanding is especially helpful when you need to have a difficult conversation with someone about, let’s say, their performance at work. Knowing that something could be going on outside of work and framing your discussion around your empathy to what that person is going through can turn a demotivating conversation into a motivating conversation. We all want to be a bit more supported and motivated at work!
Empathy in action: What does compassion sound like?
Let’s say you’re at work, and you notice something about a team member’s performance. Maybe this has become a chronic issue.
A conversation with that person that lacks empathy would sound like this:
“Hey, I’ve noticed your sales aren’t where they should be. You need to pick things up. If you can’t, you might not have a job soon.”
Or, let’s say your friend tells you they are going through a divorce.
A response that lacks empathy might sound like this:
“Well, at least you don’t have to sleep next to someone who snores anymore.”
Both conversations would go very differently if you started to practice building empathy.
The first scenario might sound more like this:
“Hey, do you have a moment to talk? I’ve noticed some issues with your performance lately and I want to make sure everything is okay. Is there anything you’d like to talk about? I’m here to support you and help you in any way I can.”
Instead of focusing on their sales numbers, focus on them as a human being. Perhaps there’s something going on that’s affecting their work, but threatening their job isn’t going to boost their sales. Connecting with that person and communicating your understanding of their situation might help them climb out of that dark hole in the ground and improve their performance at work.
For your friend going through the divorce, you might say something like this:
“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you’re feeling. I know that separating from a partner is difficult to navigate. I am here if you need to talk more.”
In this response, you are recognizing that they are going through a challenging moment in their lives. You are directly acknowledging their feelings and avoiding offering any judgment, silver linings, or immediate solutions. As Dr. Brown says, “Empathy rarely ever starts with ‘at least.'”
It’s even okay if you don’t know how to respond to a person right away. Saying something like, “I don’t know what to say right now, but thank you for sharing that with me” shows the person that you care and that you’re open to connecting with that person. You don’t need to be able to fix it. Just connect and listen.
There is such a thing as too much empathy.
There’s a quote that floats around in social work and psychology circles. It goes something like this:
“Care but don’t carry.” I think this is an important distinction to make.
Allowing someone to consistently tax your social and emotional well-being will not give you the same ROI as practicing empathy and healthy boundaries. Empathy burnout is even more important to recognize if your business is in a high-touch customer service industry.
You want your team to connect with your clients or customers on a deeper level. We know that it can boost your business but watch for the emotional toll that excess empathy can have on your team. That’s where practicing empathy with your employees can help them navigate those moments where their emotions get pulled into conversations with customers.
Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the decrease in one’s ability to empathize, usually because one’s job places a high demand on their emotions. Doctors, nurses, caregivers, psychologists, and even customer communication professionals can struggle with compassion fatigue from time to time. We’ve seen an unprecedented increase in compassion fatigue during the pandemic, when the entire world has worked through the challenges associated with the virus.
While it’s true that most people would benefit from practicing more empathy, empathy can be a double-edged sword, especially for people in high-needs customer-facing industries. Seeing and feeling the pain in people’s daily lives can take a toll on your emotional well-being.
The empathy balancing act: help and resources
Like most things in life,
it’s all about balance. We want more compassion and empathy for the people we serve, and the people on our teams, but balancing that empathy with healthy boundaries will help prevent anyone from experiencing empathy burnout.
If you’re dealing with more demands on your time and emotional energy than you can handle, there’s help. Customer communication specialists like the ones at Ruby are trained to listen to, delight, and empathetically connect with people who contact your business. They’re experts at navigating sensitive and challenging conversations, and they can handle communication on your behalf 24/7—or fill in whenever you or your team need to disconnect.
To learn more about empathy, I recommend checking out the following articles, guides, vides, and websites:
- 5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy from Harvard’s “Making Caring Common” project
- The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
- Brené Brown’s website, brenebrown.com
- The “Developing Empathy” lesson plan from Learning for Justice
- “How to Be More Empathetic,” a guide from the New York Times
And for more business resources, check out Ruby’s small business resource hub.