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Why Empathy Is One of the Cornerstones of Emotional Intelligence

Empathy is one of the most important skills to learn in today's business world. Although it has its origins in the caring professions as a "soft" skill, empathy is now accepted as a vital people management tool, whether this is managing staff needs, customer issues, or people's personal problems.

1. What is "Empathy"?

Psychoanalyst Carl Rogers has described empathy in different ways as:

  • "...entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it."
  • "...being sensitive moment to moment to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person."
  • "... communicating your sensings of his or her world as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements of which the individual is afraid."

When we empathize with another person, we try to see the world through their frame of reference. We try to understand how the situation we see is seen by them, what meanings they give it and what values they place on it.

2. Empathy is not Sympathy

Empathy is similar to, but distinctly different from, sympathy, as their etymologies show:

  • pathos = Greek for "feeling"
  • empathos = "pathos" meaning "feeling" and "em" meaning "in" ie "feeling in..."
  • sympathos = "pathos" meaning "feeling" and "sym" meaning "with" ie "feeling with..."

A man fell into a large hole.
An uncaring person walked past, looked down and told the man how silly he was to find himself in the hole.
A sympathetic person walked past, and feeling sorry, jumped in the hole with him.
An empathetic person walked past, saw both the hole-dwellers and, having ascertained that neither wanted to be in the hole, fetched a ladder and helped them out.

3. The Empathic Response

In any conversation with others where you are offering help, empathy can create a rapport that enables the other person to trust you. You can then lead them towards possible solutions and changes that will solve their problem. One way to do this is to use the empathic response. The empathic response is a way of reflecting back what you understand the other person to be feeling. Notice the different ways we often respond to a small child who has fallen and grazed her knee and is crying.

  1. "It doesn't look that bad."
  2. "Stop crying! You're putting most of this on."
  3. "I bet that feels sore, doesn't it?"

Only 3 is the truly empathic response. It is the one response that is likely to stop the child crying.

When you use empathy with skill, you show others not just that you are interested in them, but that you respect and value them as well. Far from being a "soft" skill, empathy is a powerful skill and rightly one of the cornerstones of Emotional Intelligence.