We’ve all heard the saying a million times: ‘Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’…. but does it really help? The intention behind putting ourselves in another’s situation is to help us conjure up a sense of empathy.

What is empathy exactly?

“In order to empathize with someone’s experience, you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experience to be.” Brene Brown

Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman claims the four defining attributes of empathy are to be able to: see the world as another sees it, in a non-judgemental way, whilst understanding that person’s emotions, and communicating this understanding to the person. Sympathy, on the other hand is feeling pity for the person. It is very different.

Why do we need to force ourselves to feel empathy?

Cognition researchers have found that the tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings. That’s great – so we are hard wired to think about ourselves first [sarcastic tone]! The good news though is that there is a particular part of our brain, the right supramarginal gryus, which is dedicated to helping us distinguish our own emotional state and perception of ourselves from that of others, and is also responsible for our feelings of empathy and compassion. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we now know that we can literally rewire our brains by strengthening desired neural pathways through our daily choices of mindset and behaviour. Getting into the habit of putting ourselves into other people’s shoes is one such way to make us more empathetic.

What benefit does empathy have in the workplace?

Numerous studies have found a correlation between empathy and more productive and cost-effective workplaces, which then eventuate in better business results. They have also shown that managers who demonstrate empathy have employees who are sick less often and who generally report greater happiness. Empathetic workplace tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs. In Tim Cook’s 2017 MIT commencement address, he warned graduates, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.” Research demonstrates that Cook and other leaders are on to something. A Harvard Business Review concluded that “corporate empathy is not an oxymoron…it is a hard skill that should be required from the board-room to the shop floor”. Empathetic managers foster a climate of support and understanding which subsequently boosts employee wellbeing.  It’s also believed that empathy instills trust, which equates to better team work. Forbes reports that empathetic managers create engagement and employee loyalty, and empathetic customer service reps drive customer loyalty. Empathy is even the key ingredient in Apple’s  ‘Employee Training Manual‘.

Convinced? Now check out this excellent animation on the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, as explained by research professor, Brené Brown, to help refine your skills!

Sources: here, here, and here.