Don’t miss the mark on empathy, says Julia Kerr Henkel, MD of Lumminos

Empathy is the skill of the future to create greater belonging and cohesion, she says.

We all tend to think of ourselves, perhaps somewhat generously, as being empathetic – maybe even great listeners. But are you really? What does it take to be truly empathetic, and what difference does empathy make? Also –what’s the effect when we get it wrong?

According to Google’s chief innovation evangelist, Frederik G. Pferdt, “Empathy is now a major skill needed in growing an innovation mindset in an organisation, as it helps business leaders come up with better solutions.”

In January 2021, Pferdt described empathy as the skill of the future, and suggested that practising empathy every day as a business leader helps understand what your customers and clients require, where your immediate team are at, and what they actually need.

By practising generous listening, and putting yourself into their position to really understand how they think and feel, you are able to come up with better, more relevant solutions.

In cultures where empathy is present, people have a sense of belonging and cohesion in times of distance, separation and upheaval, and they perceive they have the space to raise issues and mistakes. They feel supported, seen and heard.

Let’s deconstruct empathy
Empathy is the ability to connect to the emotions that underpin the experience that is being shared by somebody, not the event or experience. An empathetic person may not know what it’s like to retrench or be retrenched, to lose a colleague or partner, but they can connect to the feelings of fear, anxiety and loss that these experiences bring up for another.

Empathy can also be learnt and practised, as it consists of five skills, namely:

  1. Perspective taking – to see the world as others see it.
  2. Staying out of judgment – suspending your beliefs and views and leaning into curiosity and compassion.
  3. Recognising and connecting to emotion (the other person’s and yours) to understand what that person is feeling.
  4. Communicating your understanding of what you’re hearing and feeling.
  5. Practising mindfulness – observing your thoughts, feelings and maybe even bodily sensations as they are in the moment, without judging them, or trying to suppress or deny them.

Since the focus is on the emotions at play rather than the event, emotional literacy is at the core of this skills set.

Emotional literacy involves the ability to recognise the emotion we are feeling, name it and describe what is happening to us emotionally.

You can’t effectively move through an emotional experience and understand what the emotion is signposting you to, without being able to identify it, name it and then navigate it. In terms of neuroscience, putting language to the emotion also helps you to shift focus from the limbic emotions-centred brain, back to your logic-based, thinking brain.

Empathy is also a choice, and it’s a brave and vulnerable choice to make in the moment, because it can involve sitting alongside someone in their confusion, frustration, or struggle, without rushing to fix it or helping to make the pain go away. In this way, empathy builds trust and increases engagement and connection, and is not about advice giving.

How do you get empathy right?
When it comes to practising empathy and building a muscle for it, it is difficult to always get it right, and of course the existing levels of trust and psychological safety in the relationship will play a big role.

Empathy involves a slow, layering and stacking process i.e., as you build more trust with another and create a sense of safety for them, you go some distance to signify that being open and vulnerable is welcomed.

This, in turn, builds more trust and connection. Leaders need to identify values, craft powerful rituals, and foster a future-ready culture that’s prepared for the new normal as trust and collaboration are needed to establish a culture of innovation and belonging.

Do words matter?
While sometimes it’s best to allow the silence to do the heavy listening in the conversation, some helpful sentences that convey this connection might include:

I get it.
Thank you for sharing with me where you’re at.
I know what that feels like, how might I support you right now?
You’re not alone, what might you need right now?
I’m here for you when you’re ready.

On the flipside, when someone shares something personal and vulnerable and they don’t feel seen, heard, or understood, the overall effect is one of relational distance and disconnection. These ‘empathy misses’ might sound like:

The fixer/advice giver/problem solver – “That’s bad. Right, what you should do now is this or what I would do if I were you, is…”
The competitor – “You think that’s bad? Listen to what happened to me!”
The judge – “What were you thinking!! What’s wrong with you?”
The disappointed one – “I never thought you would struggle with that, I’m disappointed this is so hard for you to handle.”
The sympathiser – “Awwww, shame, that’s hectic – you poor thing! I don’t know how you’re coping.”
The fighter – “How dare that person do/say that to you, let’s go kick their butt.”
The minimiser/silver liner – “You’re so amazing, I’m sure it’s not that bad or as big a deal as you imagine. Let’s go have a glass of wine!”
The hurry-up I have so many things going on-er – “Oh that sounds hard. Now, did you get the meeting invitation yet? Sorry I have to dash, let’s chat again… okay, but I heard you!”

It’s likely that you’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of ‘misses’ and you may have done all of them when trying to empathise with someone else.

When practising empathy, establishing clear boundaries between where you end and the other begins is also essential, to avoid taking on their struggle as your own. We demonstrate empathy by showing that we understand what they are feeling.