Employing Empathy

“I think we all have empathy.  We may not have enough courage to display it.”  -Maya Angelou

Empathy is a word that is gaining a lot of attention, especially in the leadership world.  And for that reason, it is important for us to build a good, strong understanding of just what empathy truly is…

First, we need to understand that empathy, while often used interchangeably, is not the same thing as sympathy.  We will utilize Dictionary.com to sift these differences out a bit more. According to Dictionary.com; 

”Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people.  Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person.”

“Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.”

“You feel empathy when you’ve ‘been there’, and sympathy when you haven’t.”

This definition is a good starting point for understanding, and gives us a glimpse into why empathy is incredibly important and necessary to be effective as a twenty-first century leader.

In all facets of their work, leaders have to be able to not only understand, but to see and feel from the perspective of another.  To see and feel as that person sitting in the chair across the table or desk from you, to ‘feel into’ their perspective.

For, as a leader, empathy isn’t only in trying to place yourself in the shoes of another, it’s realizing that what you do as a leader influences and impacts that experience, their experience.

Acknowledging that level of influence and impact is a gap that many leaders fail to close, let alone attempt to cross.  And for that reason, chasms form, chasms between leaders and the people and the organizations they lead.

Empathy serves as the bridge that crosses that chasm, closes that gap.

You might even say, while we don’t always readily notice, the main differentiator between sympathy and empathy is in how those words serve, from self to others.  Sympathy has an inward focus, it is something you gather from others.  While empathy incorporates an outward flow, it something that you project towards others.  And while it might appear subtle, it is an incredibly important difference.

And which is why empathy is and remains a necessity for leaders to effectively serve their organizations and those within…

Which may be summed up through these words from Daniel Goleman from his work Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.  When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large.  But when we focus on others, our world expands.  Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”


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