Feel and Grow Rich: 5 Ways to Learn Empathy

July 10, 2013 — 19 Comments

 The struggle of my life created empathy – I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me. Oprah Winfrey

iStock 000006407418XSmall 300x200 Feel and Grow Rich: 5 Ways to Learn EmpathyGreat leaders are empathetic.  Tomorrows jobs will require even more empathy.  Forbes writer, George Anders calls it the The Number 1 job skill in 2020 and The Soft Skill that Pays 100K +.  So go get great at empathy.  You’ll be a better leader, and make more money.  Wait, how do you do that?  There’s growing evidence empathy can be learned.

5 Ways to Get Better at Empathy

1.  Experience pain.  No, I’m not saying go live a crappy life.  But, when life sucks sit with that pain.  Feel what’s happening, don’t ignore it.  Work to process your reactions.  Pay attention to who is helpful, and who is not.  Discover what feels empathetic to you.  When others share their stories, work to connect to common experiences in your life or in those closest to you.

2. Collect and reflect:  Dr. Paul Furey says, “Listening with empathy requires you to first pick up information about the other person: 1. How they feel, 2. What about, 3. Why they feel that way and then reflecting that back to them in a short sentence – a humble guess about ‘where they are’.  e.g.  ”1.You’re annoyed   2. about me being late  3. and I had promised to be on time too!”  This works great in a customer service environment.  Tune in tomorrow for my podcast interview with Dr. Furey.

3. Suspend judgement:  Empathy is not opinion.  Your opinion may be needed, at some point.  Start with understanding and connection.

4. Work on related EQ Skills e.g.. active listening, understanding non-verbals, questioning, thinking from another’s perspective.

5. Practice  Harvard University is even piloting a game which teaches students to “walk in another person’s shoes.”  Approach situations with a deliberate focus on listening more deeply, reflecting back, understanding and connecting.

So, can we teach empathy?  Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™ shares,

“The act of showing empathy is teachable. The signs to look for in others are teachable. The pace to feel others needs is teachable.  The only thing that is not teachable is “desire” to do it.  I can inspire it yet in the end others must want to do it”

What would you add?  How can you teach and learn empathy?

See Also:

Why Empathy Matters in Leadership
The Original Empathy Test (a free, cool online assessment)

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19 responses to Feel and Grow Rich: 5 Ways to Learn Empathy

  1. Empathy is an over used term. It’s also confused with sympathy.

    To be empathetic means you understand what the other person is feeling. You’ve lived it. You’ve walked in their shoes. You’ve had the same experience.

    Sympathy is acknowledging what someone is going through and providing comfort.

    Big difference.

  2. Steve, But don’t you think there’s a way to connect and understand, even if you haven’t been there?

  3. One of the most shocking experiences I’ve had regarding this was through a “Poverty Simulation”. A role play was set up during a community leadership development program. We were each given a small amount of money and then given bills which needed to be paid. This was shocking, since I have thankfully never had to choose between feeding my children and paying the light bill. This helps us be empathetic to those who have experienced this. It is not the same as actually being there, but you do get a glimpse.

    • Dave, that sounds fantastic. I still remember the day I spent in elementary school blindfolded, simulating being blind. It helped me relate much better to my grandfather who was blind.

  4. Do I really have to suspend judgment Karin?

    I’d rather judge people and feel better about myself. It helps to look down on people for their faults and overlook mine.

    Seriously, I do that.

    Thank you for this…I have been struggling with a particular person who needs empathy not judging.

  5. Karin- at least the controversies in the discussion have a lot of empathy.
    I lived an experience when I was about 8-9 years old. My father had one pound (3 dollars) left. He spent most money buying medicines to treat his bleeding ulcer. A woman walked in hour house and was in greater need for the pound. My father gave it away. My mother was unhappy because that meant he couldn’t buy the medicine.
    That resulted in a story that my dad wrote “The Last Pound” for Arabic BBC. The story was broadcast many many times and my father was paid 10 pounds for each repetition.
    May be a high level of empathy is giving others what you need if they need it more. Time shall pay back the dividens

  6. Karin, Great post. It is so true. Empathy is a skill that is extremely important, but for some reason, many people believe it has no place in the workplace. I think it’s because they confuse empathy with weakness. and the one does not necessarily mean the other!
    What would I add to your list? I don’t know, that’s a pretty great list. What I would say is that by showing empathy to others, it tells them that you care for them as a person. Not as an employee, or a leader, but as a person. And that validation is more important to their job performance, their attitude and the self-worth than just about anything else you could do.

    • Mark, So glad to have you expanding the conversation. Thank you. You raise a really important point… it’s the connecting at a human level that makes all the difference.

  7. In my experience, empathy is providing the space for others to share openly and honestly. Most of the time it’s just listening, not problem solving or providing my opinion. Reflection, understanding and being present go a long way to showing empathy.

  8. Thanks Karin for your thoughts on this most important emotional intelligence skill. I really appreciated your point about personally processing pain to develop this native intelligence. Your insight is excellent. Your words reminded me of some of the writings of Brene’ Brown in her book the “Gifts of Imperfection,” she wrote that “embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” It is an unexpected to learn that what is painful and vulnerable can make us better leaders.

  9. “Suspend judgement” is probably my favorite of the 5. Too many people judge frequently and easily and judgement is blocking any possible open view on situations, let alone empathy. Empathy is also very important in business partnerships or strategic alliances. The leaders in these situations deal with different organizations constantly. Empathic leaders will be more open and objective and hence be able to better manage their relationships with other companies and cultures. It are these other companies and cultures that have in strategic alliances and business partnerships a strategic important role to help grow ones own organization.

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