What is Empathy and How Do We Get Better At It?

What is empathy?

It’s a question I frequently ask when working with leaders at varying levels of organizations, all around the United States.  It’s amazing the answers I get.  More often than not people say empathy is “caring” or “being compassionate”.  

Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and emotions; even being able to feel what they feel.  Many believe empathy is to care for others. Others believe empathy is to have sympathy for others.  Empathy is not caring, although, in order to deploy empathy, we must care about others.  Sympathy is feeling sorry for others.  

Empathy is one step further toward human connection.  

It’s the ability to understand – actually take mental and physical steps to genuinely understand – what other people are thinking and feeling.

Empathy is the one skill that is intricately woven in, out, and through each component of emotional intelligence.  Remember, before we can master the art and science of leading others, we must master the art and science of leading ourselves.  

Without human connection and achieving understanding with and among those we lead, we’ll have very little influence, and few will be open to our attempts at inspirational leadership.  However, when we deploy empathy, caring enough about other people’s feelings, situations, and predicaments, everything changes.  

If we want to connect with and inspire people in our organization and on our teams, understanding how other people feel in certain situations helps us craft our own messaging (e.g., email, verbal communication, meeting agendas, daily huddles, or briefings) so that we continue to move the organization forward in a positive direction, creating a positive atmosphere in the process. 

Empathy also allows us to take appropriate action while taking others’ feelings and perspectives into account as we make decisions and lead forward.  What we often forget is that empathy is a skill, and it’s one that we can all improve upon over time.  Just like anything else we have a desire to improve, we have to be intentional about practicing it.

Three ways to practice your empathy skills:

  1. Practice simply staying silent while listening to others.
  2. Visualize yourself going through what they’re experiencing.
  3. Summarize the feeling you perceive or understand they’re actually feeling about the specific situation they’re sharing with you.