Your co-worker cuts you off before you’ve entirely explained your idea. Your boss prescribes you how to fix the production issue, but never even asks what your ideas might be. Your spouse doesn’t bother to hold the door open when you are carrying in the groceries. The 18 wheeler won’t let you merge in order to get past the accident. All of these are signs of a lack of empathy and its persistence is eroding the relationships around you. As DeLores Pressley wrote, “Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.”
So why do we need more empathy? It is what makes us human. Most of the animal kingdom is working off of “me-first” instincts. Kill or be killed. You’re never going to see a crocodile share its prey with another adversary. Empathy connects us and through that connection, we are able to compound on those connections to much greater success and well being.
Here are the 5 reasons why empathy is the difference maker:
- Understanding others helps develop relationships. Think about that guy at work who always brags about his fabulous European vacation and his wonderful new motorcycle. The guy you can’t get a word in edgewise with. You know who I’m talking about. Do you feel any warmth or connection with him? Not likely. Do you want to go above and beyond for him? Not likely either. Trust gets built when there is shared understanding. Relationships are the foundation of organizations. Unless there is trust and understanding, it’s difficult to have success. Empathy is the re-bar in that foundation.
- Empathy ensures openness. In any relationship, whether it’s a marriage, partnership or corporation, openness is critical. Openness is the antithesis of secrecy. This is why everyone gets paranoid when the CEO’s office door is shut. “Here come the layoffs.” It also ensures that leaders aren’t prescribing the answers. So, what happens is the co-worker brings an issue and their counterpart says, “What are your ideas?” instead of “This is the way you should do it.” An openness to all possibilities creates innovation and breaking out of the status quo. This is critical for organizations as well as personal relationships.
- Putting other’s interest first brings mutual respect. As written by Toby Norton, “Serotonin is the molecular manifestation of the feeling of pride—we get it when we perceive others like or respect us. On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work are valued by others, particularly those in our group.” This helps reinforce positive feelings from everyone. “Hey Joe made sure I knew the numbers were off before I presented to the Board.” I’ve got Joe’s back going forward. This mutual respect compounds on itself like a ripple effect across the organization or department or family. It’s the way we do things around here.
- Empathy makes it safe for us to fail. I can hear you whining. “But, Cathy, we don’t want to encourage failure.” This is a pipe dream. Of course we are going to fail. At work, at home and at school. If we don’t encourage failure, everyone starts hiding the evidence. I don’t want Suzie to know that we had an error in the report. I don’t want my manager to know that the product isn’t priced right. If we cannot be transparent and fall on the sword when we fail, then neither will anyone else around us. This breeds secrecy and distrust. Everyone goes around constantly looking to repair their image. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. Empathy creates a safe place to fail.
- Feeling valued by others compels the group forward. As written by Norton, “Homo sapiens developed a herd instinct; thanks to those cooperative chemicals (i.e. serotonin and oxytocin), we find comfort when we’re part of a group.” According to Sinek, “Our confidence that we can face the dangers around us literally depends on feeling safe in a group. Being on the periphery is dangerous. The loner on the edge of the group is far more susceptible to predators than someone who is safely surrounded and valued by others.” It is a simple as saying “Is everything OK?” It’s paying attention to simple gestures like holding the elevator door, letting the car merge in or helping reset the room after the training. These small things help create value and connection for everyone. It keeps paying it forward on an ongoing basis.
Try incorporating more empathy in your life. Listen without judgment. Clarify your partner’s needs. Be open to what is there.