The Crux of Connection: Why Empathy Is All You Need

Our exploration of Emotional Intelligence is taking its next turn, and I’m excited to invite you along for the ride! After having a detailed look at Self-Regulation, which culminated in my recent article High Stakes Perspective: How To Stay Self-Regulated When It Counts, I demonstrated for you how techniques like zooming out, remaining in the present, and big-picture thinking can pay off during the intensity of workplace interactions. The final step I mentioned, which suggested the practice of “linguistic distancing”, was articulated best by a DRIVEN OfficeHours participant: “I try to accurately assess what the actual issues are and where the differences in perspective/communication are, so I can try to translate or address it.”

This wise client of mine is putting herself into others’ shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. Her approach is the definition of Empathy in its purest form, which is exactly what we will explore going forward.

Empathy Begins At Home

Have you noticed that during our look at EQ so far, it’s all been about you? The concepts of self-awareness and self-regulation tend to home in on, well, ourselves. This aligns squarely with one of my favorite studies, conducted jointly by Harvard University, The Carnegie Foundation and The Stanford Research Institute. It finds that “technical skills account for less than 15% of one’s value in obtaining, keeping, or advancing in a job. More than 85% of job success is based on personal conduct and the ability to put others at ease.”

For the last few months we’ve been picking apart the personal conduct portion of these findings, and then we put the puzzle back together with suggestions on how to conduct yourself as you intend. Then there’s that second part about putting others at ease— this will expand your vision and your thinking to the outside world, which requires Empathy.

Is Empathy Anything Like Sympathy?

Now, before you start to run with the ball, it’s important to acknowledge the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. The latter is having feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while the former is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. For instance, I have sympathy for my dear friend Maria, whose father Tony is battling cancer and has reached his last days. After learning of Tony’s anticipated death, I felt a wave of deep sadness for him, and for Maria and her mother Esther. On first examination, I’m not able to stand under Maria’s reality since I haven’t lost a parent myself. But my sympathetic instinct is to do anything I can to support my friend during this difficult time.

By contrast, I have empathy for my friend Mitchell who just entered his mother into assisted living. I absolutely related with the challenges of this situation after witnessing my father’s efforts to move my own mother into the same type of facility. I understand the emotional, financial, physical and spiritual difficulties of this transition, and it all gets factored into my current relationship with Mitchell.

Put another way, to sympathize is to see another’s difficulty and say “too bad for them”, while to empathize is to stand in another’s shoes, or to authentically understand what another is going through. At its core emotion, empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection.

Empathy As EQ in The Workplace

Sympathy isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. Frankly, I don’t yet want to know how it feels to lose a parent. But empathy has a better case, as it ultimately feels like inclusion and is essential for creating trust. In some instances empathy is natural, like the empathy I felt for my brother while growing up. When he got sick, I felt ill as well, demonstrating that I stood under his reality.

But empathy is not intuitive, which is tricky since it’s a vital ingredient for a productive and sustainable work environment. If someone in the workplace isn’t shown the empathy they desire, they can feel vulnerable in ways that lead them to believe they don’t belong. And if we all felt like that, a productive and harmonious workplace would be impossible to achieve. The responsibility is on each of us to stand under the other person’s reality and be empathetic in ways creative and appropriate. My next article will show you how.