Empathy is best described as the ability to step into another person’s shoes and to recognize, understand, and appreciate how other people feel. It involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.
The most important demonstration of empathy comes when the consideration of the other person’s position is followed by an action. The action may vary from just actively listening to helping a person on the task at hand. The support should be genuine and not of a “transactional” nature, in other words, not intended as a way to get something in return.
The empathic nature makes a person approachable, someone with whom people feel safe sharing thoughts and ideas. It provides a foundation for all other interpersonal skills.
Being too low on Empathy
People who have difficulty empathizing can’t articulate another’s perspective and are more focused on facts than on others’ feelings and reactions. For instance, if a person fails to take into account colleagues’ feelings when resolving conflict, managing change, or making tough decisions, he or she leaves them feeling alienated and undervalued. Additionally, you cannot predict how others will accept change if you cannot address the emotions they are experiencing (e.g., fear or excitement).
Strategy to improve low empathy
Active listening can improve the level of understanding of the other person’s experience. Active listening entails repeating back, in your own words, what the speaker has said. Those with high empathy can do this even if they do not agree with what the speaker is saying. To practice active listening:
- In general, listen more than you speak. Try it in your next interaction and note the approximate amount of time you spend listening versus speaking.
- When you find yourself jumping in to speak, stop, listen, and reflect back what you have heard before offering your own opinions.
When you are too high on empathy
Being too empathic has a negative side. When colleagues trust you with their issues and feel comfortable coming to you for advice, you, being very concerned with their feelings, run the risk of taking on their problems, becoming the victim of your empathy. Being over-empathic can lead you to avoid making tough decisions or to act in some way at the expense of your own interest or needs.
Strategy to develop if you are too empathic
Mixing Sugar with Spice. It is important to ensure that your empathy doesn’t get in the way of handling tough conversations or decisions. Being empathic does not mean being extra nice all the time; you still have to do what you have to do! When a tough conversation or decision is needed, acknowledge that you may:
- Need more preparation time in order to express the right amount of empathy. Write down what you want to say and rehearse it.
- Be respectful of people’s reactions, but don’t let them derail you.
- Keep in mind that if you mirror someone’s emotion, you will likely intensify that person’s reaction. For example, if the news you are bringing someone makes them angry, by becoming angry yourself you are likely to make the situation more heated.
Be able to step into the other person’s shoes but don’t lose your own.