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Empathy is a core skill in the 21st Century

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

Recently I was leading a discussion circle of coaches on empathy #emcc. It is always interesting to deconstruct concepts alike; we realise how complex and multi-faceted they are. Even for someone with two degrees in Psychology, vast experience in organisational behaviour and coaching - not to mention a lifetime of deep interest in connectedness and behaviour change. That's the beauty of these topics; there are no limits to inquiring!

I am sure my readers are familiar with Emotional Intelligence. According to Daniel’s Goleman theory of EI; Empathy is one of the five components. Others are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and social skills.

' I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.'
- Maya Angelou

There are different kinds of Empathy

Researchers have also identified different forms of empathy with Cognitive and Affective Empathy that impact how we interact on a daily basis. And then there is Compassion which according to Paul Ekman is generally understood to be a response to the suffering of another person.

With a healthy brain, we naturally possess this amazing quality of Empathy that allows us to understand other people's emotions and meaningfully connect. With mirror neurons, we detect each other moods and feel what others are feeling. Sharing of same or similar feeling. Literally, stepping in the shoes of the other, especially if we had a similar experience in the past, through affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy is also known as ‘perspective taking’ allows us to understand another perspective without feeling what the other person is feeling. Something like this: 'I understand how you see how you think about x, I can see things from your perspective'. This can be effective when communicating in the workplace and especially with an attitude of non-judgment and open-mindedness.

Building and maintaining high-quality relationships at work, in my view, cognitive empathy is not sufficient. Affective or emotional empathy to build trust and rapport is also necessary.

Humans are incredibly skillfully at reading the temperature, meaning we pick up on each other moods through empathy and related emotions. We are social beings to our core and wired to connect and pick up social cues. Empathy even supports us to detect distress and to a certain extent evaluate circumstances and what we can expect.

Indeed, in challenging situations, for most of us, empathy arises naturally. For some can even become too much of a good thing if we lack the capacity to regulate our own emotions and reactions, leading to emotional exhaustion.

Are we as empathetic as we would like to believe?

Empathy is a core skill in today’s reality of our VUVA world, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Hybrid work requires us to intentionally practice empathy because it takes more effort to create meaningful connections virtually than face to face.

Just like research has shown that humans are far from being as self-aware as we think we are, the same might be the case for empathy.

The challenge with empathy and related skills, often referred to as soft skills, we undervalue the effort it takes to improve and sharpen these skills. As if they are secondary because we naturally possess them to a certain degree - and hence no additional effort or regular practice is needed.

This is both a misunderstanding and a missed opportunity because intentionally sharpening such skills may be the main ingredient for effectiveness, impact, wellbeing and greater fulfilment at work.

These so-called 'soft skills' often require more unlearning than learning for us to improve, which is more complex than practising a new skill. We are creatures of habits and automatic behaviours, getting stuck in our mental models: Our habitual way of thinking, behaving and perceiving the world. Unlearning is a daily practice of catching yourself in the moment, to notice your preconceptions so you can choose a different reaction. Perhaps a more conscious response. This way, empathy is indeed something we can further cultivate and develop.

Why is Empathy at work important?


Empathy plays a role in collaboration. We cultivate meaningful relationships with colleagues and stakeholders through empathy, allowing us to collaborate more effectively. We can practice empathy by paying more profound attention than we typically do and catch ourselves when we make snap judgements and assumptions about others. You will be shocked when you start to notice yourself and how quickly your mind will jump to conclusions with minimal information.

Problem Solving and Innovation

Empathy drives innovation and problem-solving. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says ‘Empathy makes you a better innovator.’ When we pay deeper attention, we are better fit to recognise the unmet needs of our clients and stakeholders. Needs they may not even be aware of.

We also know that psychological safety and trust is critical for innovation. Through empathy, we build trust, lower our defence mechanisms and fear of making mistakes that sparks creativity.

Charisma and Leadership

Empathy is an essential ingredient of charisma and leadership. Leadership today requires practising empathy for effective communication, bringing out the best in others and mobilising action. There are at least two kinds of charisma: A superficial or insincere charm without empathy and authentic charisma is where empathy plays a role.

When we truly seek to relate and connect with another, it comes across, through body language and expressions - sparkling charisma.

One practical way I share with clients who are looking to practice empathy, especially in challenging circumstances, comes from The Charisma Myth written by Olivia Fox Cabane. Imagine the person you are engaging with, as having invisible angel wings. It certainly helps to shift our perspective momentarily!

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