Best Practices in HR
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  January 1, 1970

Empathy is a Power Skill

Empathy: “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

More and more research is revealing how empathy is good for business—sales teams use empathy to relate to their customers more, which leads to more sales. Some of the most successful employees in the best companies state soft skills—like empathy—as their most important qualities. Empathy is always present in coaching conversations.

What Empathy Is Not

Before we dive in to how empathy is used in coaching conversations, let’s clarify what empathy isn’t.

Empathy Isn’t Sympathy

Sympathy refers to taking part in someone’s feelings, rather than experiencing them as if they were our own. Many times, sympathy shows itself as feeling sorry for someone else, rather than actually feeling what the other person is feeling. When Charles Dickens was writing weekly chapters in a newspaper column, his goal was to make the reader feel empathetic enough to continue reading the next week. If his goal was to make the reader feel only sympathetic, he likely wouldn’t have had as much of a following as he did. Empathy is typically a much closer feeling than sympathy, where someone actually feels the same feelings as the other.

Empathy Isn’t Compassion 

We talk a lot about compassion at Cylient. It’s part of our 3 C’s of a coaching perspective, along with curiosity and courage. While empathy is sensing another person’s emotions and putting yourself in their shoes, compassion includes the desire to help that person and relieve the suffering they’re feeling. Compassion is a broader word to describe empathy and action together—which is foundational for impactful coaching.

How Empathy is Used in Coaching Conversations

Empathy is the bass guitar of coaching conversations—it needs to be there, or the conversation feels hollow. It carries the underlying rhythm of the conversation, and every other coaching approach used is a layer of melody on top of it. You know that gut feeling you get when you feel like someone is being fake or insincere? Without empathy, the person being coached can instinctually feel that.

In an “in the moment” coaching conversation, empathy can look like:

  • Being genuinely curious about what motivates people to do whatever they are doing. Whatever people do, it makes sense to them. When we don’t understand something about another person, getting curious about how the other person sees the situation is being empathetic.
  • Understanding another’s worldview. In order to know what’s truly bothering someone, you have to put yourself in their shoes. What do they care about? What bothers them? What matters most to them? This innately empathetic activity is imperative to having a robust coaching conversation that leads to meaningful action.

Inspiring meaningful action by igniting insight is where empathy turns into compassion. This part of the conversation enables people to see how they will benefit from doing something differently. Helping them see that benefit is the action that helps them to get unstuck and make positive change.

Sometimes, we fall into a trap of feigning empathy that leads us to problem-solve too quickly. We say, “I understand, and here’s how to fix it.” Rather than experiencing what the other person is feeling to gain understand, we are more motivated to try to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling as quickly as possible by “fixing” the problem. This sympathy-based approach to solving a problem doesn’t require any empathy, and it doesn’t result in any motivation to take action.

By empathizing with what someone is feeling, we are better able to discern the essence of what is truly bother or limiting them and respond thoughtfully. Sometimes that simply means listening deeply and acknowledging that whatever the person is experiencing is difficult or frightening, without needing to try to resolve the situation.

Empathizing with the people around you will serve you later down the road. Acknowledging how the person truly feels, and creating a space where they know you will genuinely listen to their feelings, builds trust and commitment. As a result, they’re more likely to respond to your needs and wants in the future.

How to Cultivate Empathy

Empathy is a skill, and just like any other skill, it takes practice to get better at it. By practicing your “in the moment” coaching skills, you’ll naturally become better at tapping into empathy to guide your conversations. Here are some some things you can do to cultivate greater empathy:

  • Spend some free time helping others. Volunteering is a great way to cultivate empathy that also increases life satisfaction. Seeing and experiencing how others live will help you relate to those situations on a deeper level.
  • Try compassion meditation, which is a Buddhist practice that guides people toward compassionate thoughts. Allow compassion to permeate your body as you repeat the phrases: “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.”
  • Read a book. Believe it or not, reading fiction novels has been shown to increase empathetic responses in people. Experiencing a simulation of real-world experiences and how others view the world can help you empathize with others in your own life.

What Does Empathy Look Like?

Empathy-based compassion is how we lift each other up and support each other to move forward when we get knocked off balance by our changing world. What are some of the best expressions of empathy-based compassion that you’ve participated in or seen recently?