Sliding the empathy scale

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This ability (in contrast to simply listening to others, or hearing them out) lays the foundation for making connections with others, and being able to influence them effectively.

Differences and conflicts occur on a regular basis in most normal workplaces. In order to deal with those it is of critical importance that we be able to experience how a situation looks and feels from the other person’s perspective. This enables us to work together to meet the needs of both parties and to forge strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

Is a high level of empathy always a good thing? No, probably not. In business, we will wish to understand how major decisions will have a possible negative impact on others. However, sharing all potential negative feelings can lead to paralysis when tough, unsentimental decisions are required. ‘Empathy’ is good – on a sliding scale. A CEO who is seen as heartless will not earn the ‘engagement’ of his or her people. He or she must, however, be able to make tough decisions, for example by slashing headcount.

If I visit a doctor I hope he or she will understand my condition and then be able to diagnose the problem and offer relief. I will also expect a certain measure of sympathy from the doctors and nurses I encounter. It makes me feel seen as a person, not just as a ‘case’.
But I do not expect him or her to share in all my pain and misery. Sharing in the misery of all their patients would make life unbearable. Caregivers must protect themselves against ‘empathy fatigue’, also known as ‘secondary posttraumatic stress disorder’.

Returning to colleagues and clients: our observation is that there is not enough empathy in the workplace, people will feel a lack of understanding and respect in the face of normal differences.

The link below will take you to a 10-minute animation around this theme. It deals primarily with a need for greater empathy at the level of human relationships in general, the social level. But nothing stops you starting small, with a little smile or a really meant ‘I’m sorry for you’.