The dictionaries offer a variety of definitions for empathy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as “The ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings” whereas the Merriam-Webster will offer a more complete definition “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.
While these definitions do describe empathy well, they are also limited. This is especially true when it comes to using empathy in leadership or within a business context seeking to achieve results.
A common misunderstanding in such a context is that empathy also means to be “soft” and “weak”. Which happens when put in contrast to a “hard” and “strong” management. It is the idea, that one can either manage for productivity or invest in people’s needs by achieving harmony.
This misunderstanding of empathy is based on the perception that empathizing means to agree with the other and that empathizing can’t go without sympathizing. Neither of which is the case. What’s true is that empathy is easier when we sympathize and agree with the other. But there is no need to agree or sympathize with the other when being empathic.
A useful definition of empathy comes from Theresa Wiseman, a medical professor, and researcher at the University of Southampton. She identified four defining attributes of empathy:
- The ability to see the world as another person sees it.
- The ability to understand another person’s feelings.
- The ability to suspend judgment.
- The ability to communicate this understanding, which is essential “if empathy is to be felt.”
The ability to suspend judgment is a crucial one. It implies the ability to see the world through the other person’s eyes and experience. It means to ask ourselves “What is that person’s reason?” and to be able to do so without judging that person in any way.
As human beings, we find it more difficult to empathize with people whom we perceive as different from us because the difference in respective positions can create a sense of “otherness”. This can be just as true for someone who has a different hierarchical position than as it can be true for someone from another country or group. In such situations and especially when under stress there is a potential to activate our negativity bias. It is built on the assumption that it is safer to assume that the other may be a threat to us. This naturally leads to prefer being cautious about the other person’s behavior instead of being open to it.
It is easy to get caught in a vicious circle here. The alternative is to slow down.