True emotional intelligence includes having a deep sense of compassion for all living things, being able to demonstrate empathy and occasionally, when appropriate, extend sympathy to others. However, what do these emotions really mean and when are they appropriate?
Empathy is what you feel when you are able to put yourself “into another person’s shoes” especially if you have had similar experiences or feelings. We all enjoy empathetic understanding and responses from others. Empathy is the ability to “read” others, to respectfully focus your attention on the person, to truly listen and understand his or her actions and emotions.
Compassion is an attitude towards yourself and others that involves a combination of empathy, of sympathy, of non-judgemental understanding, accompanied by a wish to take action to alleviate the suffering of another human being, or other living things. Feeling someone else’s pain is not good enough; you have to know how to lessen it.
Sympathy is feeling sad or sorry for someone or their situation. For example, you can feel sympathy for a friend who has lost his job, especially if you are employed and he is not. Generally speaking, we don’t really want people to feel “sorry” for us. However, for funerals and the loss of someone, a deep felt “sympathy” is an appropriate response.
Why should we care about empathy?
In today’s increasingly fast-paced world, empathy becomes more important every day. Nearly everyone needs greater empathy in society; our society suffers from the lack of it. Luckily, empathy is one of the elements of emotional intelligence that we can develop.
Individuals low in empathy may express frustration that they are unable to “fathom other people” or say that they are “not sure where they are coming from”. This could be about team members, colleagues at work or with family members. If this happens, it’s likely that they make decisions or take actions without asking for feedback on the opinions and preferences of those around them. As leaders in the workplace they may appear autocratic and dismissive or indifferent and uncaring. Frequent misunderstandings may occur where there is little empathy, with individuals expressing concern that they are surrounded by “difficult people”.
A key factor in increasing our empathy includes the intention to pay attention to others. To listen, to understand what is being expressed by those communicating with us, rather than projecting our interpretation of reality on them. Paying sufficient attention to other people may take a bit more time – it definitely takes more commitment and motivation. However, practising empathy pays off because it leads to more effective and accurate communications. Productivity improves, conflict is reduced and trust is easier to build even in difficult or tense situations.