The Power of Empathy

The Power of EMPATHY

The second in a four-part series about the PEAK values, we shift from the obvious strength of persistence to explore the subtle power of empathy.

In a recent conversation with a client, we discussed adopting empathy as one of their core values. Based on their business model and a deep understanding of the employees they needed to attract, hire and retain in order to be successful, it was a natural fit. There was clear agreement that the intent of empathy was accurate, but concern was raised that it might be perceived as “weak” or confused with being “emotional.”

I didn’t agree, but I understood the concern, based on misperception. I think empathy gets a bad rap in the business world. But why? Well, I have two theories:

1. It often conjures up images of “touchy feely” types. Perhaps that’s why Yale Professor Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy. As it turns out, Bloom isn’t completely against empathy, simply pointing out the inherent risks and bias involved when empathy influences certain types of decisions and argues that compassion is a better approach.

2. It gets confused with sympathy and compassion. While associated with empathy, each have unique meaning and nuance.  Compassion is the emotion we feel when others are in need, motivating action, to help.  Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for someone in need, relating to our personal experience.  Empathy is rooted in holding space, connecting with another person as they are. In this this short animated video, Brené Brown describes sympathy as something that drives disconnection while empathy fuels connection.

I decided to lookup the official definition of empathy and quickly concluded that Merriam-Webster may have provided one of the least helpful definitions I’ve ever read. Now I see why there might be confusion, especially for someone to whom the concept of “experiencing the feelings of others” is foreign or illogical. Imagine explaining this to a group of non-empath characters such as Mr. Spock, Don Quixote, Darth Vader or Lisbeth Salandar (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)?

Upon further research, it turns out there are actually two types of empathy. Affective empathy, also known as emotional empathy, is described as being affected by another’s emotional state and the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion.  Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state, also referred to as ‘perspective taking’ or ‘Theory of Mind’.

While the potential power of empathy is quickly becoming more clear, I’m still craving something simpler. I turn to page 97 of “Strengthsfinder2.0” and I find myself drawn to how Tom Rath describes empathy as a strength: “You can sense the emotions of those around you. You can feel what they are feeling as though their feelings are your own. The instinctive ability to understand is powerful.”

Yes! That’s it: the instinctive ability to understand. Even if someone struggles with the concept of feeling the emotions or knowing the thoughts of another, it’s hard to argue with the power of understanding. It feels so logical to say empathy leads to better relationships, creates higher life satisfaction, improves leadership, teamwork and customer satisfaction. Closer to home for me, the instinctive ability to understand makes me a better father to my sons. It’s not an exaggeration to claim that empathy makes us all better global citizens and human beings.

While I have no intention of passing out “I ♥ Empathy” t-shirts, you can see why it’s a valuable tool to help improve our lives. Specifically, let’s focus on the power of empathy in the business world. Did we chose empathy as a core value because we want to be good citizens?  Yes….and we chose it because it’s also good for business. Here are a couple of examples:

In the 2009 book “Wired to Care,” strategy consultant Dev Patnaik talks about “Open Empathy Organizations” that create a widely-held sense of empathy for customers. Such institutions, he claims, see new opportunities more quickly than competitors, adapt to change more easily, and create workplaces that offer employees a greater sense of mission in their jobs.

In studies by the Management Research Group, empathy was found to be the strongest predictor of ethical leadership behavior out of 22 competencies in its management model, and empathy was one of the three strongest predictors of senior executive effectiveness.

Personally, I think the possibilities are endless. Consider how the instinctive ability to understand might help you land that dream job, motivate your employees, keep your customers satisfied, negotiate a big contract or land a big client. Do you want one of those t-shirts, now?

Is it possible to increase empathy? Is empathy is one of those traits we are either born with or are there ways to increase or refine our empathetic ability?  Absolutely!  Here are a few approaches:

Learn about people who are different than you. Be curious. Strike up conversations with strangers in line, on the subway or sitting next to you on the plane. Go beyond sports and weather, find out what makes them tick.

Read more fiction. According to a 2013 study, “Reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind.” Essentially, fiction provides a vehicle for learning about different people (even if they aren’t real) and better yet, gaining direct access to their thoughts and emotions.

Active listening and being vulnerable. Putting down your smart phone, being fully present and having deep and meaningful conversations with others.

Employ validation (even if you don’t agree). Validation is the result of empathy. Using phrases (in an authentic and genuine manner) like “I get it.”, “That makes sense.” and “Of course you feel that way.” are powerful ways to create validation in conversation.

The PEAK Fleet has an “Organizational Development Through the Arts” program that leverages the performing arts, music and other humanities as a vehicle for impactful learning in a business context. We are currently designing a workshop to improve inclusion and acceptance in the workplace built around the Broadway Play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.” The play is based on the book by the same name and is narrated by 15-year-old Christopher Boone. Christopher has an extraordinary brain; he is exceptionally intelligent but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. When he falls under suspicion for killing his neighbor’s dog, he sets out to identify the true culprit, leading to a journey that will change his life forever. It’s a story about understanding and appreciating the different perspectives and approaches to life. I recently read “The Curious Incident” in preparation for this project and I was not prepared for the impact it had on me. We’ve defined empathy as “feeling what others feel” and “knowing what others are thinking” which is EXACTLY what I got to experience with Christopher for 200+ pages. Spending time inside the head of this fictional character gave me such powerful insight into people who process information differently than I do. In general, it made me more empathetic, understanding and accepting of people who are different from me. If you’ve read the book (or if you do after reading my blog), I’d love to hear about your personal experience.

I’d be delighted if this exploration of Empathy lead you to embark on a personal growth journey to improve your empathetic ability. Better yet, become an “empathy advocate” and share the importance of empathy with your friends, family and coworkers.

I believe there is a much bigger opportunity for all of us. Take a moment and consider what is happening in the United States right now: conflict. More than the majority of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. While it the origin may be from politics, my call-to-action is completely apolitical: exercise the power of empathy. Instead of digging in and fiercely defending your position on an issue, seek to understand the opposition. Finding common ground and striving for acceptance of difference when possible. If we can find it in ourselves to be empathetic with “the other side”, then I believe we can begin to heal and strengthen our nation and planet. Ultimately, we all want to be heard, understood and validated.

Brian Stinson

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    […] And Persistence. As we combined and narrowed further we created PEAK Values: Persistence, Empathy, Authenticity, & Kindness.  And of those, Persistence was the most hotly debated…was it […]

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