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The Value of Empathy

By Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed.

In my last column I presented 10 reasons people leave their jobs, and how a boss’s lack of empathy was a major factor in creating the conditions for people to leave. Replacing employees is expensive. You can use a person’s annual salary as a reliable estimate of “cost to replace.” Therefore, bosses who fail to develop empathy can cost their companies a lot of money.

Empathy is a not usually an innate skill. It comes easier to some than others, but for most it requires a conscious decision. That said, if one wants to learn it, it’s certainly learnable.

In the Emotional Intelligence model, empathy is something that works in concert with a solid base of self-awareness and self-management. In other words, without a solid foundation from which to operate, empathy easily gets misdirected.

Self-awareness encompasses many facets, and a great place to start is with behavioral styles. I always recommend DISC assessments for understanding your preferences in responding to problems, influencing others, your preferred workday pace and how you respond to rules and procedures.

Other assessments to use to increase self-awareness are the Driving Forces assessment, which identifies your learned motivations, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which identifies your cognitive style preferences, such as perceiving, processing and making decisions.

The other half of the foundation is self-management. This means being able to manage yourself in light of your strengths and weaknesses.

Now that I’ve briefly reviewed the need for a self-awareness/self-management foundation, let’s talk about empathy. Empathy is generally defined as the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others based on their current state of mind. This is essential in the arena of emotional intelligence.

We can examine three different aspects of empathy. First is the “thoughts,” or cognitive facet. This is being able to genuinely understand someone else’s perspective on matters, without having to agree or disagree. This can be tough for some people. I’ve had workshop attendees tell me they would not acknowledge an alternative point of view because, according to them, it would indicate agreement. Nothing is further from the truth.

The second aspect is “feelings,” or the emotional facet. This is being able to understand the impact someone’s emotions have on their current mindset, without judging the feelings to be good or bad. It doesn’t mean assimilating the same feelings. Empathy in this context means being able to ascertain someone’s feelings.

Third is the aspect of compassion. Again, this does not mean you must agree with someone’s thoughts or feelings, but rather creating what I call a “safe” environment. Let people think their thoughts and feel their feelings. People are wired to be a certain way, and to deny their perspectives or feelings about a matter is to create an atmosphere of rejection. That’s not an atmosphere conducive to cooperation and productivity.

By the way, the reason the skill of empathy is aided by a solid foundation of self-awareness and self-management ability is because you end up becoming a student of your own human nature as a subset of the different ways people do things. With that broader understanding it is easier to practice empathy.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him through his website, MyWorkplaceExcellence.com, or his office at 208-375-7606.

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