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EMPATHY - The what, why and how of it.

We have all heard the word Empathy before, isn’t it?

What is it?

Why should we have it?

If it is that important, how do we develop it?

A recent survey done by Catalyst has listed empathy as one of the most important leadership skills needed today. People need to be understood and feel a sense of belonging. This can happen only if the leadership is empathetic to their people. ‘

Many of us may theoretically want to be empathetic. But we may not fully understand it or know how to become empathetic.

In this article, I am going to share with you what I have learned about empathy and how I have developed it and where I have used it.

My first brush with empathy as a word and what it truly meant was when I read the book Manwatching - A field guide to human behaviour. This was during my college days and a friend of mine and I were totally consumed by this book and did a lot of experiments to see whether they worked.

One of the practices that we did was to sit in a public place and view the people there. We will start building a story of who they were, what they were doing here, how they were feeling, and what they intend to do next. We will build on each other’s story and see how it pans out. Our ability to really see people, understand them and feel what they are feeling was spawned in that period. We had a lot of fun but we also built an important skill while having fun.

Later, I fine-tuned this skill when I volunteered in a suicide prevention helpline. We were trained to build our empathy skills, taught how to connect with people, get into their corner and see the world through their eyes and feel what they were feeling. This was an invaluable skill that helps me till date in understanding people and getting to see their point of view.

What is empathy?

Empathy is an interpersonal skill that helps you to understand what the other person goes through and keeps you connected with the other person. It can be likened to walking in the other person’s shoes, feeling their pain and seeing things through their viewpoint and frames of references.

Empathy is very different from sympathy. When you feel sympathy, you are feeling sorry for the other person from a position of superiority. When you are empathetic, you are feeling the same pain that the other person is undergoing and feel for them as though you yourself are going through it. Sympathy is what you feel when you see someone in a hole and feel sorry for the pain that they are undergoing, and empathy is what you feel when you go down into the hole with them and feel their pain like it is your own.

There are 3 types of empathy that we need to recognise.

  1. Cognitive empathy

  2. Emotional empathy

  3. Compassionate empathy

Cognitive empathy helps us to imagine what the other person is going through without us actually getting into the emotional shoes of that person. We are able to label the emotions correctly but are not swayed or moved so much by the emotion that the person is going through. With cognitive empathy, we can keep a distance and connect with the person who is affected. Most counselors use this type of empathy to stay connected with the patient while still staying neutral to help them better.

Emotional empathy is what we feel when we actually visualise ourselves in the same situation as the other person and get into their shoes to feel the same pain that they are undergoing. We are able to imagine ourselves or our loved ones in this situation and may sometimes actually feel the same physical pain that the other person is feeling. This is deeply intense, like a mother feeling the pain of another mother or the pain of another’s child.

Compassionate empathy is when you are moved to take action to relieve the suffering of the other person. This can happen only when we feel both cognitive and emotional empathy, and balance both, so that we can distance ourselves enough from the situation to take action to bring relief.

Why is empathy important, especially in today’s world?

Leaders of today need to build their empathy skills so they can understand their employees, move into their corner, identify and connect with them, so they can slowly move them to where they should be going.

When you are responsible for someone, it is empathy that will help you understand what they truly need and help them to achieve it, while getting them to achieve your organisation’s goals. People do not follow blindly any more. They need to respect and like their leaders. And when they see that their leader understands them and has their best interests in mind while taking decisions that affect them, they are more loyal, more committed, and willing to go the extra mile when the leader asks them to.

How do we develop empathy?

Empathy is an interpersonal skill that can be learned and developed. It is like a muscle, the more you use it, the more it is available when you need it.

If you are a leader and you want to develop your empathy skills, the following steps will help you to develop those skills

  1. Listen more. Truly listen to what your people are saying or not saying

  2. Don't interrupt. Ask more open-ended questions.

  3. Be fully present in the here and now. Don’t be walking around in a cloud of your own thoughts

  4. Leave judgment behind. Judgement kills empathy.

  5. Watch body language. It gives you so many cues..

  6. Take a personal interest. Especially encourage and draw out the quiet ones.

  7. Cultivate curiosity.

  8. Step out of your comfort zone.

  9. Receive feedback.

  10. Examine your biases

  11. Walk in the shoes of others.

  12. Be open to having difficult but respectful conversations. ...

You can become empathetic. Just be open to having difficult conversations. Stay respectful of other people’s feelings and words. Your ability to connect and command with ease will increase manifold.

As you can see, empathy is just a question of listening, holding the space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that you are not alone. Empathy heals and helps people to ride out the bumps.

Wish you an incredibly healthy life.

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