Empathy - its importance and power (+practical advice)
We must all try to empathize before we criticize. Ask someone what's wrong before telling them they are wrong. - Simon Sinek
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person
Empathy is a skill everyone can enhance like every other skill
If you want to be a great friend, lover, leader, teacher, mother, dad, ... you have to practice empathy
Ask how people are feeling and really listen to what they say
Pay attention to the people you care about
Take the time to care
Imagine what it's like for them
People often argue with each other because one part is not able to be there for the other one. People turn to us because we can listen to them and they can share their worries. And, you probably feel particularly well understood by others when you are listened to properly.
When was the last time you had an argument with someone? When was the last time someone came to you and told you about her/his negative feelings or experiences? When was the last time you felt really understood by another person? Empathy might be the reason why you experienced these situations.
Although I “understand” the importance of this trait and skill, it’s sometimes difficult for me to empathize with the people closest to me. Due to my inherent personality, I've created a kind of protective shell around my feelings. This allows me to cope better with upsetting situations, unfortunately, though, this makes me less sensitive to others' feelings, too. Consequently, I have a hard time showing empathy. Maybe you can relate?
As empathy is an incredibly important quality, I've been working to enhance it for a quite amount of time. In this article, I will explain to you, what empathy actually is, why it is so important, and how you can enhance it.
What is empathy?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person, getting into another person’s world and connecting with them emotionally. It's about understanding and being aware of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of her/him.
Most of us have a good understanding of how empathy looks like, though, many of us don't really know how the harmful opposite manifests: we don't listen carefully, misunderstand, judge, propose solutions, and criticize.
You don't have to hurt, blame, or insult someone to appear non-empathic. It takes much less. For instance, your friend tells you that her/his boss was really rude to her/him as your friend made a small mistake at work. Once you stop listening, trying to connect, and being aware of her/his feelings, and instead suggest solutions, criticize, or (even worse) empathize with the boss, you stop empathizing with your friend, and the emotional connection is damaged.
Empathy is a skill everyone can enhance like every other skill. Yes, there are people who are naturally gifted with a lot of empathy (some even with too much tough), and there are people who are naturally cold as ice, yet we all can do something to improve. So far so good, but...
Why is empathy so important?
Empathy is one of the most important drivers for harmonious relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional awareness. Without empathy, we go about life without considering how other people feel or what they may be thinking. We all have dissimilar perspectives; thus we are significantly limited when we only see our own perspective. Without taking a moment to assess another, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. This often leads to misunderstandings, bad feelings, conflict, poor morale, and even break-ups and divorce.
Great, healthy, and happy relationships require empathy. Whether we're talking about romantic relationships or friendships, we cannot build trust, create mutual understanding, communicate effectively, grow and improve jointly, and show respect unless both parties show empathy. It's no surprise that people felt loved most when they felt heard - openly and impartially.
Moreover, if you want to climb the corporate ladder, found your own startup, or become a leader in any other area of life, you have to master the skill of empathy. Simon Sinek (listen to this speech if you aren't familiar with him) states that leaders of this century have to be capable of empathy as its the only way to achieve superior results in the future. Company leaders that aren't empathic and don't exercise empathy won't be able to create an environment in which employees strive. More than ever before it's the people in a business who make the difference whether it will be successful or not.
In surveys with employees on what makes a good manager, people answered they want their manager to listen to them. When leaders and parents and teachers listen, really listen, using empathy to understand what the person is thinking or feeling without trying to change them or fix them or solve their problem, the person feels valued as a human being. And when people feel valued, they feel safe. They feel that they matter. And this means they are free to be themselves and to perform their work. In other words, employees are more productive when they feel valued.
So, if you want to be a great friend, lover, leader, teacher, mother, dad, ... you have to practice empathy.
How to become more empathic?
Ask how people are feeling and really listen to what they say. One of the best ways we can express empathy towards others is through our curiosity and listening. When people feel heard, seen, and emotionally understood, they often relax, open up, and feel supported. Asking people how they truly feel, what’s really going on in their world, AND listening to how they respond (without judgment) are some of the best things we can do to express our empathy for the people around us.
It requires us to pay attention to the people we care about. Too often we are in our own heads; we have our own agenda. We are busy. So we don't pay attention to what others are thinking or feeling. In order to improve, we need to be more self-aware and more aware of others. For example, the next time you ask someone how they are doing, listen to their response. Do you believe them? Are they really okay? Ask yourself if you care to learn more. If so, then ask them a question or share your observation.
It takes time. In our fast-paced world, people just keep moving. Empathy requires that we stop and take the time to care. "What is going on for you; you look like you have something on your mind?"
Imagine what it's like for them. While it can sometimes be difficult for us to “understand” another person’s perspective or situation (because we may not agree with them, haven’t been through what they’ve been through, or don’t really want to see it through their eyes), being able to imagine what it must be like for them is an essential aspect of empathy. This is not about condoning inappropriate behavior or justifying other people’s actions, however, I do believe deep in my heart that no one does or says things that are hurtful to us if they aren’t already feeling a real sense of pain themselves and/or haven’t been hurt in many ways in their own life. Whatever the situation is, the more willing we are to imagine what it’s like for them, the more compassion, understanding, and empathy we’ll be able to experience.