EMPATHY: You Keep Saying That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

leadership, empathy, gordon model

Google believes it can test leaders’ level of empathy in five minutes, asking just sixteen questions.

Maybe they’re onto something, maybe they aren’t. But the fact that this result emerged while the organization was attempting to build the perfect team is certainly food for thought.

Still, empathy itself, as we discuss it within organizational development and human resources, is frequently not actually empathy. Often, it’s simply sympathy. The two are entirely different, and they operate on different planes.

Sympathy is intellectual and protects our emotions by isolating them from others. Empathy is emotional and makes us vulnerable and open to others’ emotions.

Sympathy versus Empathy: The Key Differences

Sympathy is intellectual in nature. We understand someone else is experiencing a strong emotion, generally because we perceive intellectual information about their emotional responses through our senses.

We see, hear, or otherwise learn that someone is joyful or upset—or they may have come right out and said what they’re feeling. They may be laughing, crying, narrowing their eyes, hugging themselves. They may say “I was really ticked off yesterday,” or “I am over-the-moon happy.” And with that input, we take appropriate steps to synchronize our own behaviors in context-appropriate ways. We hug, we send flowers, we clap, we say “congratulations.”

This is basic, natural, functional, intellectual sympathy that is too frequently called “empathy” in the world of training and development. And this mislabeling causes frustration all around, because its lack of an emotional component means it is not true empathy.

Sympathy is “Thoughts and Prayers.” Sympathy, by definition, creates an insulating emotional distance from the other. Sympathy says “I’m so sorry you feel that way.”

We may sincerely mean it; most of us do. We can and do acknowledge the depth and significance of other people’s feelings. We feel bad (or good) with someone else. Sympathy is a necessary skill for a functional human society.

But when we merely sympathize, we do so from our own perspective—from within our own belief systems, attitudes, and values. This may (consciously or unconsciously) produce judgments about the person’s feelings if they conflict with our own perspective.

For optimal human collaboration, cooperation, and communication, sympathy is not sufficient.

Empathy goes beyond sympathy. While the definition of “empathy” in the HR realm tends to conflate sympathy and empathy, empathy requires active effort to step outside your own emotional and intellectual perspectives, experiences, beliefs, and assumptions to view an emotionally charged situation from another person’s point-of-view.

Within organizational contexts, this skill is critical for helping people or groups solve problems.

Empathy is a foundational skill for prioritizing group efforts over individual efforts. Outstanding group facilitation skills, for example, are a demonstration of high empathy skills operationalized in real time.

Empathy and Leadership: New Perspectives on Problem-Solving

Empathy is a critical leadership skill. Within psychological research, the concept of EQ (or “emotional quotient,” the emotional equivalent of IQ) is still emerging. Research suggests capacity for empathy may be inborn, in the same way as IQ.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed, like a muscle.

In a very real way, empathy is the actor’s craft—the ability to step outside one’s own skin temporarily, to imagine what it must be like to be another person, to look at the world through another person’s eyes. To experience fear, happiness, insecurity, gratitude, relief—the full range of human emotion—from the point of view of someone who is not you.

The Leadership Superpower

Discomfort with unfamiliar territory comes with accepting promotion and assuming a leadership role, and it really isn’t a good reason not to acquire a skill—especially one that Google has demonstrated is critical to high-performing teams.

All new leaders must stretch their skills into uncomfortable realms. Artistic directors have to learn budget management. Accounting directors must learn human resources. Operations directors join marketing meetings, and so forth. All leadership skills are new, alien, even uncomfortable at first.

Empathy (not sympathy) demands development of emotional skill, personal mastery, and  professional development. It is a superpower. For some, it’s as natural as breathing. For others, developing the muscle may be as tough as a Crossfit® workout. But developing the empathy muscle can achieve great things.

So, where is the empathy gym? It starts with a core workout: Active Listening. (Despite persistent mischaracterizations, Active Listening is not listening patiently until you can interject your own thoughts. That is sympathy, not empathy.) Other workouts and muscle development help to support that core: Problem Ownership, I-Messages, Shifting Gears.

In a very real way, Active Listening provides structure, support, and tangible scaffolding for those without deep wells of natural empathy while they build the rest of their empathy tool kit. As Dr. Thomas Gordon put it, in pragmatic terms:

Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand their “personal world of meaning”—how they view their reality, how they feel about things. Active Listening performs this very function. A climate in which a person can frequently feel empathically understood is conducive to that person’s overall psychological health and personal growth. I believe this happens primarily because such a climate facilitates problem-solving, which results in greater need satisfaction.

In the short and long-term, as modern research is bearing out, developing empathy as a skill—and understanding the critical difference between sympathy and empathy—benefits not only individuals, but also teams and even  massive organizations.

Just ask our friends at Google.

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