The term empathy comes from the Greek “empatheia”, meaning “feeling into.” Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and perceive their subjective experience. We experience empathy when we sense or feel another’s emotional state, or when we can take their perspective, identifying and understanding another’s feelings in a given situation.
People often confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another’s feelings, while sympathy involves feeling sorry for, or pitying another. While you may feel sympathy toward flood victims, for example, you may not have true empathy for them unless you have experienced something similar yourself.
Developing empathy requires us to make a deep connection with our own emotional states and to become comfortable in the emotional field. Many people are uncomfortable with displays of emotion, particularly those feelings that we perceive as negative such as sorrow, anger, jealousy, or fear. Often, the first impulse when faced with these emotions in ourselves or others is to avoid them.
In the personal development workshops I lead, participants can experience a profound connection with themselves or resonate deeply with others in the room as we explore questions of meaning, belonging, and personal legacy. Tears are not uncommon. It is interesting to observe other participants’ reactions. Some sit calmly, tears in their own eyes, while others fidget, or begin immediately passing tissues. It takes a high level of self-awareness and acceptance to hold another’s emotional field. While we are naturally moved to comfort one another, often our well-meaning pats on the shoulder and tissue passing are attempts to avoid our own discomfort and distract others from their feelings. Highly self-aware people can attune to others ‘feelings, express empathy, and hold the space for emotional process.
Why does this matter in the workplace? According to the Harvard Business Review, empathy is “a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.”
Empathy connects us to one another, creating resonance and helping people feel seen, heard, and understood. When people feel heard and understood, they feel safe and become more receptive to other viewpoints, collaborative problem-solving, and risk-taking. This fosters an environment of trust that creates bonds, strengthens relationships, and builds loyalty. In this kind of environment, people feel safe to express their ideas and opinions creating a crucible in which companies can grow, innovate and thrive. Now, more than ever we need to feel safe and connected, and to do what we can to help build a new normal where we can all thrive.