If you asked a group of people to define ‘empathy’, you would almost certainly find that one of the first things that anyone suggested was ‘an ability to understand other people’s feelings’.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, listed ‘understanding others’ as the first element of empathy.
Goleman also suggested, however, that understanding others is more than just sensing other people’s feelings and emotions. It also means taking a genuine interest in them and their concerns.
Understanding Others - The Skills You Need
People who are good at understanding others:
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.Ernest Hemingway
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
- Show sensitivity towards others, and understand their perspectives. They are careful not to give offence by saying or doing the wrong thing, and are aware that not everyone has the same point of view. Our pages on Being Polite, Tact and Diplomacy and Intercultural Awareness may help you to develop this area of your skills. If you are struggling with the balance between truth, honesty and politeness, you may find our pages on Truthfulness and Balancing Honesty and Politeness helpful.
- Help other people appropriately, based on their understanding of their needs and emotions.
Insights from Understanding Others
Developing empathy, and particularly the skill of understanding others, is not just important to your interpersonal relationships. It can also have a much wider impact.
For example, in the US, doctors who listen carefully to their patients are much less likely to be sued.
In one study, primary care doctors (the equivalent of general practitioners in the UK) who had never been sued were found to be much better communicators than their peers.
Empathy as economic sense: Huggies Pull-Ups
Huggies Pull-Ups were developed as a direct result of empathy in action. For those without children, these are pull-on nappies (diapers) for toddlers, an intermediate step between nappies and ‘grown-up underwear’.
Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Huggies, sent observers to watch parents and toddlers using nappies. This gave the company real insight into the way that families were operating, and what products they needed. The company realised that it would be helpful to have something in between nappies and pants: a ‘stepping stone’ that would allow children to start getting themselves dressed. Huggies Pull-Ups were born.
The Importance of Sincerity
It is possible to pretend that you understand people’s feelings and, more particularly, their concerns. Sales staff often do this to try to establish rapport with customers.
However, as humans we are programmed to detect and dislike insincerity.
Your pretence, it is fair to say, will be detected by those around you, probably through subtle hints in your body language, or perhaps in a response to an unexpected question.
The other person may not even be aware of detecting it, but will feel uncomfortable with the conversation that you have tried to strike up, or with what you are saying, and find that they do not really trust you.
In other words, this ‘false empathy’ will be counter-productive.
Trying to manipulate emotions can backfire on the perpetrator, and may well not be worthwhile. Those who are genuinely empathetic will get a very different response.
Empathy Avoidance and Empathy Overload
There are two aspects of understanding others and being interested in their concerns that, as part of empathy, are worth exploring further.
The first, empathy avoidance, is a deliberate lack of empathy, which might be called ‘emotional tone-deafness’.
Total empathy avoidance is unlikely to be healthy for your long-term relationships, but being able to shut down some of your empathetic response may be helpful under certain circumstances. For example:
At Home. Children need to receive certain vaccinations. In their first few months of life, they have several vaccinations, sometimes two or three at a time. Having a needle stuck into their legs hurts, and babies scream when it happens.
Parents, however, need to clamp down on their immediate response and recognise the long-term benefits of vaccination, in avoiding serious diseases, rather than focus on the short-term distress of the child.
At Work. Managers responsible for making redundancies need to be able to make good decisions. They are unlikely to be able to do so if they are struggling with their own emotional response to the distress of those around them.
While it is important that they remain aware of the feelings of those involved, they have to be able to balance that with the use of reason and logic and not be overwhelmed.
In Healthcare. A surgeon performing emergency surgery on someone who has had serious injuries in a road traffic accident needs to be able to use all their skills to try to repair the damage, or amputate if necessary to save the patient’s life. They cannot spend time considering how this might make the patient feel.
However, after the operation is over, and the person is awake, they need to explain their actions and help the patient to start to come to terms with whatever has happened. They need to remain aware of their patient as a person, with feelings and concerns, and respond appropriately.
Empathy overload sometimes happens when people are exposed to difficult and distressing information.
In such situations people can find themselves unable to deal with their own emotional response to the situation. This can happen, for example, if you find that a friend is seriously ill. You want to help and support them, but you are too upset to do so. It is also a problem that can arise for people working in professions like medicine, nursing and social work.
The way to manage possible empathy overload is to work on your self-regulation, and particularly your self-control. With improved self-regulation, you will be able to manage your own emotions and respond appropriately to those of others.
Understanding Others is not ‘Soft’
We often talk about ‘soft skills’, and there is no question that empathy, and understanding others are important soft skills.
There is, however, absolutely nothing soft, in the sense of ‘easy’, about understanding others’ concerns and feelings. Neither is it ‘soft’ in the sense of not being tough: the best managers are empathetic, but not ‘soft’ on their team.
Understanding others does not mean that you have to agree with their feelings or point of view. Instead, it means that you recognise their point of view, and accept that it is different from yours.
You may still have to do difficult things that others do not agree with, but hopefully, both you and they understand that.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about emotional intelligence and how to effectively manage personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.