In many organizational cultures, empathy is a dirty word. “Too soft,” “spineless,” “mushy,” “pushover,” “letting people get away with things,” “coddling,” and “enabling” are some words I’ve heard people use when talking about empathy. However, these perceptions about empathy are inaccurate and keep people from both knowing what empathy is and how to use it.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is often confused with sympathy, which is when we feel sorry or pity for another. To describe as an analogy, let’s say you came across a person stuck in a deep hole. Sympathy means jumping down in the hole, while empathy means getting a ladder to help the person out.

Unfortunately, people have become so reactive to empathy for fear of being too soft or enabling that organizational culture has gone to the other extreme: people are treated like machines, numbers, and robots devoid of human feelings and emotions.

Emotions are natural. If you’ve ever dreaded coming into work, felt bored, or were irritated with a co-worker, you’ve felt an emotion. What’s important is how we both handle our own emotions and how we respond to other people’s emotions. Strong emotions can cloud our judgment and our ability to see situations clearly. When we use empathy properly, we help people better handle their own emotions so they can respond with clarity. More importantly, we relate to them as a person, not an expendable commodity.

What Empathy Is Not

Contrary to popular belief, empathy doesn’t mean letting people wreak havoc with emotional outbursts, letting people make excuses for their behavior, or never setting a boundary. This is not empathy – it’s co-dependence. Co-dependence is taking care of other people’s feelings because we think they can’t handle them (or because we can’t handle them). Empathy is caring about other people’s feelings.

What I often hear instead are messages like, “just get back to work” or “there’s no place for that here,” insults or put-downs, threats, or being told to just “do your job.” Unfortunately, people then return to work but are less productive, less engaged, less motivated, and more dissatisfied.

What Empathy Looks Like

When we empathize, we put ourselves in another person’s shoes to attempt to understand how they feel. We then reflect that understanding back to the person.

Let’s say a co-worker is having a bad day. Sympathy means that now your day starts going downhill, too. Co-dependence means that you think you have to fix their situation and make them feel better. Empathy means giving an indication that you get what they are feeling, and that it’s OK. This could be in the form of a genuine, “Bummer – sorry to hear that,” asking a few questions and listening, or doing some basic paraphrasing or reflection (“Ah man, it seems like everything’s falling apart on you today.”). You’ll know you’re on track because you’ll notice a change in the person’s state.

One client I worked with, who was a senior leader at a large organization, was dealing with an employee who resisted completing assignments, shot down new ideas, and generally kept to themselves. Typical of many clients I’ve worked with, he thought the employee should just be grateful to have a job and that anything short of imposing formal consequences was a form of coddling. After trying their approach with minimal results, the client finally decided to try using empathy instead of taking more drastic action. They attempted to understand where the employee was coming from by asking questions instead of making assumptions about the employee’s behavior, listening instead of telling the employee how they needed to change their behavior, and genuinely seeking to understand in order to find other solutions.

Surely enough, their approach changed everything. The employee was able to share some deeper feelings about both my client’s behaviors and the organization in general that my client was shocked to learn about. Some of these included how the client only provided harsh, negative feedback around the work that the employee did do, how he solicited ideas but only implemented his own, and how several other leaders blamed the employee for something they never did.

As a result of taking this approach, my client was able to understand where the employee was coming from and make changes accordingly. The employee’s behavior turned around, and my client used the feedback to strengthen his leadership and make organizational recommendations.

We don’t need to agree with the person to empathize with them. In fact, we can be in a heated debate and still empathize. The advantage of empathizing, however, is that we can get to the root of the problem more quickly because it reduces defensiveness, inability to listen, and making assumptions.

How to Empathize

Many people overcomplicate empathy because they think they either have to fix the problem, tolerate bad behavior, or try too hard. While empathy might not be easy, it’s actually quite simple. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Imagine what the other person might be feeling. Perhaps you can recall a time when you felt the same way, even if the circumstances were different. See if you can identify one or two of their emotions.
  • Paraphrase and reflect what you think the other person is feeling. It’s ok if you’re wrong, so long as you give the person a chance to share what is true.
  • Be curious. Ask questions to understand, not interrogate.
  • Listen. Hear what the other person has to say, without interrupting, blaming, or judging.

When to Use Empathy

There are a number of situations when empathy is particularly useful:

  • When someone is having a strong emotion, empathy can diffuse it
  • When someone is struggling, empathy can help them think clearly to find a solution
  • In the midst of conflict, empathy can help people hear each other and work together to resolve the conflict
  • When someone is resistant to an idea or change, empathy can help get everyone on the same page
  • When someone disagrees with you or isn’t following through, empathy can help you understand each other

Although it might seem counter-intuitive, being willing to empathize results in more productivity, efficiency, quality, and morale. It’s a matter of investing a little more now to get bigger payoffs later. I’ve had some of the toughest, “don’t have time for emotions” clients try using empathy and they always come back surprised by how effectively it resolved long-standing issues with people at work (and home, too). Give it a try and let me know how it goes!