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The 'E Word': Why You're Afraid of It, and Why You Should Embrace It Instead

Leaders are scrambling to catch up on how to lead with empathy.

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How does a soft skill make some people so uncomfortable that they dismiss it? What could be disturbing about something squishy and soft? Like a marshmallow, pudding or the Blob, squishy and soft things have little shape or definition. They're hard to control, which is incongruous with people who need firm lines and edges. As anyone who's tried to nail Jell-O to a wall can attest, it's not easy to work with. Therefore, we dismiss the soft skill as unimportant and unnecessary — until we need it as badly as we do right now.

Empathy is that oft-dismissed soft skill that is currently enjoying a renaissance of heroic proportions. But just because leaders are realizing they need to develop some empathy skills doesn't mean that the doubts about its usefulness have been erased. Misinformation is hard to dispel, but let's give it a shot with some empathy basics that will bring definition to this seemingly squishy skill. Let's call it Empathy 101.

1. Empathy is a factory default setting

Humans are born with empathy. It's how we come out of the box, along with our many other senses. It's been proven in studies by developmental psychologists who explored empathetic reactions in babies. Also by neuroscientists including Helen Reiss and Jamil Zaki, who have been able to identify the parts of the brain that light up when we are being empathetic. Empathy isn't a skill to learn like swimming. Empathy is a sense to re-awaken by bringing attention to it and learning how to use it.

2. Two kinds of empathy equals twice the confusion

Have you noticed that empathy is often described as, seeing the world through someone else's eyes, as well as, feeling the feelings of others? One is a cognitive statement while the other is emotion-based. Yet both are accurate definitions of empathy. I have found that this causes confusion among people as they gravitate toward one definition or the other. Often it's the emotional one that makes people more uncomfortable because emotions can be messy and hard to understand. I find cognitive empathy is the one everyone could improve. Cognitive empathy is the lubricant that keeps the gears of society moving silently and smoothly. It's about how we see the other — whether it's your neighbors, co-workers, suppliers or clients. Actively understanding the point of view of these individuals will improve your skills in communication, collaboration, persuasion, critical-thinking, trust and decision-making. All of which will contribute to your ability to lead and manage others.

Related: Why Empathy Is Important in Leaders Right Now

3. You don't have to give up your own values to have empathy

Having empathy means making room in your head or your heart and understanding that there is another way of looking at a situation. Or, that another person's feelings are as valid as yours. An example I often use is about favorite flavors of ice cream. I love chocolate ice cream, but other people love vanilla. Are they wrong? No, they are entitled to their opinion. Do I have to suddenly love vanilla ice cream? Absolutely not. But, I can make room in my head to acknowledge that there are other ways of looking at things, and that people have different preferences for ice cream flavors. If so, then perhaps I can have a rational conversation to find out what is so appealing to them about vanilla ice cream. I can use that information to make different decisions. Perhaps I'll use that understanding to inform my next food product innovation. Or it will inform my decision to make sure that our next company ice cream sundae party has more flavors available than just chocolate.

4. Empathy is about seeing others as equals

Another area of confusion is between sympathy and empathy. There is a difference between the two and it's important to know when and how to use each one. There's a great animated video with Brené Brown where she talks about this distinction. I also like how others describe it as the difference between the three-letter word, for, and the four-letter word, with. Sympathy is feeling for someone, which can create a power dynamic. Empathy is feeling with someone, which puts you on equal footing with them. Sympathy has its place in society, but the two are very different and are often confused and misused.

5. We are in an empathy crisis

Even though we are born with the innate ability to have empathy, we are in the midst of a serious empathy deficit. A 2010 University of Michigan study found that starting in 2001, college students had a 40 percent decrease in empathy compared to their peers in earlier decades. That number hasn't improved.

Ignite 360 surveyed nearly 1,000 American adults over the age of 18 in March 2021, and again in January 2022, on empathy in relationships. In both surveys, 31 percent of people were unable to agree that they could easily see the point of view of others. That means about 1/3 of the people you run into on a daily basis are not able to get where you are coming from. That's concerning and it confirms that the breakdown in societal interactions isn't just a figment of your social media imagination. It's real.

Empathy is a critical element in many of the skills you need to engage and participate in life. Communication, persuasion, decision-making, ideation, collaboration, trust, forgiveness and compassion are all powered by empathy. If you want to be a good leader, manager, team member, individual contributor, customer, client, supplier, salesperson, partner, spouse, parent, friend or neighbor, you need your empathy skills to be sharp.

Related: Why Empathy Is One of the Most Overlooked Skills in Business

Let's get in top empathy shape

Empathy muscles in the U.S. and around the world have become soft. We need to firm up this flabby, Jell-O skill so that we can build the organizations, communities, neighborhoods and families where we want to belong.

In my next column, I'll share details on the five steps to empathy, which are what you need to follow in the moment of engagement to get to a place of empathy.

Related: 3 Reasons Empathy is Good for Business

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