Empathy is trending, with literally millions of people reading about it, talking about it, posting about it and—most importantly—seeking to demonstrate more empathy.
Is empathy more important than it has been in the past? Perhaps. Or it’s possible people are more in tune with what others are going through. One of the most powerful way people bond is by going through hard times together. And the pain and the challenges of the last couple years, have been shared in many ways. Many people have reported their capacity for empathy has increased based on their own experiences and their recognition of others’ pain. And arguably, empathy has become something people are more comfortable talking about—based on reporting of physical and mental health issues or the increased focus on wellbeing by people and organizations.
Whatever the reason, empathy is on the rise, and this is a good thing for social systems and collective wellbeing. But with its rise, come misnomers about empathy. Here’s what empathy is not—the myths of empathy to avoid so you don’t derail your best efforts at being more empathetic.
#1 – Empathy Isn’t Fluffy
Empathy isn’t a soft nice-to-have, but rather a significant contribution to all kinds of positive outcomes for people, business and organizations. Research has demonstrated empathy drives mental health, innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, work-life fulfillment and cooperation. While people may previously have considered empathy to be squishy or non-critical for business, hard data shows it’s a practice with evidence-based results.
#2 – Empathy Isn’t a Lack of Accountability
While they are committed to empathy, some managers worry that greater empathy will result in a lack of accountability for teams and organizations. They wonder: If leaders are gentle or understanding with employees, whether this will go too far—and result in a lack of performance, impeding company results. But empathy and accountability aren’t opposites. In fact, they often occur together. When leaders demonstrate empathy, employees tend to be more engaged which is linked with contributing discretionary effort and greater performance.
In addition, people want to be held accountable. When leaders set clear expectations and count on employees to do great work, it sends the message an employee is valued. People have an instinct to matter—and they crave to contribute their talents and skills. Being held accountable isn’t a negative, it’s a positive way leaders and teams communicate they appreciate all an employee offers to the group and the organization. Great leaders understand what employees do uniquely well and create the conditions for them to bring their best, so they can contribute to organizational results. Empathy and accountability go hand-in-hand.
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#3 – Empathy Isn’t Just for Leaders
While empathy is a critical skill for leaders, it isn’t the only skill leaders require. In addition, it isn’t a skill only for leaders. In fact, empathy is most powerful when it is widespread within an organization—demonstrated by people at all levels, in all departments and within all teams.
When people feel like others understand them and respect and care about their particular situations, these contribute to cultures of empathy. Seek to create cultures in which diverse points of view are valued and people appreciate each other, where people can make mistakes, learn together and succeed together. These will be the organizations where people want to be—and which they won’t want to leave.
#4 – Empathy Isn’t Making Assumptions
One pitfall of empathy is making assumptions or extending biases. While it’s critical to imagine what people are thinking (cognitive empathy) or feeling (emotional empathy), the gold standard in constructive relationships is asking questions and really listening to what people are going through.
Avoid making the mistake of over-generalizing (you know what your sister who is a single mom is going through, so you assume you know what all single moms are facing). Also avoid the mistake of making assumptions based on your own experience (you went through something, and believe everyone else going through it is having the same issues you did).
While applying previous knowledge and putting yourself in others’ shoes are great starting points for empathy, you’ll be best served to stop short of making assumptions or over-generalizing. Ask questions to truly understand those around you.
#5 – Empathy Isn’t Passive
True empathy isn’t passive, because when you understand someone’s challenges, you’ll be compelled to take action of some kind. Some theories suggest compassion is the active form of empathy, and perhaps this distinction is helpful—but it’s not critical. Use the terms which mean the most to you, but also know that fundamentally, when you empathize you’ll want to reach out to people, offer help or take action in your community to influence the conditions which support people’s wellbeing.
Some people worry they must have advanced degrees in social work to ask the right questions or provide the right input, but this isn’t the case. Letting people know you care, being present and then connecting them with expert resources can all be impactful ways to empathize and support which don’t require expansive education or deep expertise—they are just important ways of expressing humanity and caring. You may make mistakes or approach someone in a way which is less than perfect, but demonstrating you care is a great first step.
In the end, empathy is the right thing to do for the people around you. But ironically, empathy is also good for you. When you feel like you matter to someone else, when you feel connected with others and when you contribute to those in your community, these also contribute to your own happiness.
So be empathetic because it’s good for people, or because it’s good for business. But also embrace the boost you’ll receive yourself, as you’re reminded about how you’re an important part of a connected community. When you demonstrate empathy toward others, you’ll in turn be able to appreciate when someone else offers you the same.