What you need to know about empathy

4 min read

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In my first Podcast, I talked with Henk Nieboer. He said that a good engineer needs empathy. This can be a challenge for some engineers who just thrill to make calculations, write reports or give advice.

In this article I am explaining what empathy is, what the benefits are and how you can develop this skill.

A working definition of empathy

According to the Webster’s dictionary, empathy is the projection of one’s own personality into the  personality of another in order to understand the person better.  In other words: empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is being sensitive to the needs of the people you relate to (both in business and in your personal life).

Empathy is an ‘entering into’ the life world of another person.                                   ―Mikhail Bakhtin.

This is different from sympathy where you may feel sorry for someone else’s challenges or miseries. Being empathic requires and action and sympathy is rather a passive feeling as a result of an incident.

Benefits

The benefits of empathy are:

  • Better relationships.
  • To discover the question behind the question (the needs).
  • More harmony.
  • More effect.
  • …and from my personal experience, a richer, more positive mind(set) and more energy.

Actions for more empathy

First, you need to choose to connect with someone. Sometimes it’s difficult as you need to cross an invisible barrier. You connect with someone as you consciously try to understand the story of the other and who they are. This is a choice.

Second, you need to be curious. Find out what they know, what they believe and where they come from. Ask yourself “What is the other person going through now?” or “Why did they do what they did?”.

Third, You need to listen (read more about being a better listener here) because empathy is about connecting, feeling and understanding. In German empathy means “Einfühlung”. You feel “in” as opposed to sympathy which translates to “Mitgefühl” where you feel “with” someone else. Again, do you see the difference? The first requires an action of your part (you’re participating in) and the second is more passive (you’re observing). You acknowledge and understand the other by listening carefully.

More tips

“This all sounds very theoretical, Freek”, I hear you say. “Do you have any more practical tips?” Yes I do:

  • Go outside your comfort zone.
  • Reach out to connect. Try going first in being empathic!
  • Engage and ask questions.
  • Stick to their story. Try not to relate it to your own experiences.
  • Keep judgements to yourself.
  • Refrain from mentioning the “positive side” of the situation or giving solutions.
  • Find a safe environment to meet and talk.
  • Treat others as being (equally) important. Communicate on the same level.
  • Respond to body language (try to copy it, but just slightly).
  • Acknowledge emotions and feelings (your own and theirs).
  • Acknowledge troubles and struggles (our own and theirs).
  • Offer help or support (and commit to it/do what you promise).

Important!

Empathy should be authentic. It’s not about just applying the practical tips mentioned above. You should be genuinely interested in the other person. Otherwise there will be no connection, trust, feeling, let alone, real communication. You’ll both know this.

This skill needs practice to master empathy. What is empathy to you? What benefits do you see and what do you do to be more empathic? Let me know in the comment box below. I am looking forward reading from you!

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