What Is Empathy?
Coined in 1909 by German psychologist Edward Titchener, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It means putting yourself in the shoes of another to feel what the other person must be feeling.
Empathy can take on 3 forms: emotional, cognitive, or compassionate.
People with emotional empathy feel physically along with another via mirror neurons in the brain. When my wife watched me getting prepped for surgery a few years ago, she winced when they started my IV. Her emotional empathy made her respond as if she had just gotten pricked.
Cognitive empathy is as much about thinking as feeling. People with cognitive empathy quickly determine what others think and feel in any particular moment. People with this skill are known as intuitive. Steve Jobs of Apple never used market research; instead, he watched people interact with his products, and he intuitively understood their thoughts and feelings. He would take what he observed to improve his products.
The third form of empathy is compassionate empathy which is both emotional and cognitive empathy, but adds a strong desire to get involved and act. When my sister’s son went missing and was presumed dead, I flew out to her, stayed a week, and helped do anything that I could do to carry part of the sorrow.
Empathy allows us to build stronger social relationships by prompting us to respond appropriately in a variety of social settings. Additionally, empathizing with others helps us better regulate our emotions. Finally, empathy prompts us to get involved. Whenever there’s a humanitarian crisis across the globe, people with high empathy want to make things better, prompting them to give money or time to ease the suffering of others.
It’s also good for business. When it comes to a company’s financial performance, 87% of CEOs believe empathy is very important. It also reduces turnover. Ninety percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with a company that understands and empathizes with employee needs.
How Can We Develop Empathy?
1. Use both your ears and your eyes
In conversation, listen and watch body language of the person in front of you. Based on what you hear and see, try to determine what emotion the other person is feeling and what that person may need from you.
2. Treat everyone (even jerks) with kindness
Ever heard the saying “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”? When someone mistreats you, it has nothing to do with you. That person is struggling. Returning unkindness with unkindness robs you of your happiness.
3. Suspend judgment
It’s overly simplistic to say, “You made your bed, now go lie in it” when we see people struggling because of poor choices. By making a quick judgment, we justify not offering help. Instead, ask yourself what can you say or do that might become a turning point for the person in front of you.
4. See how other people live
Visiting Puerto Rico for work, I stayed at a resort. Then I traveled the island, eating where the locals eat, staying in small communities, visiting local shops in the non-touristy towns. The resort had amenities but no personality; the locals had personality, but few amenities. That experience gave me insight and a heart for the people and their struggles, one I would have never experienced had I stayed at the resort.
5. Question to learn, not challenge
They take a real interest in others. When you meet people with different experiences, become intellectually curious. Don’t ask questions as a way of arguing or challenging. Ask questions as a way of broadening your views by hearing their experiences.
What stirs your empathy, prompting you to get involved with people and causes? How has someone shown empathy towards you that helped you when you needed it most?