What Good Is Empathy?

  • Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries


The telecommunications company’s offsite strategy meeting was running smoothly. For days, its executives had been preparing intensively for the final presentations. Their challenge was how to find ways their company could engage in a major transformation process. Having done their preliminary work, all of them were curious about how their suggestions for strategic renewal would be received by the CEO and the executive team. Would their reactions be positive?

The telecommunications company’s offsite strategy meeting was running smoothly. For days, its executives had been preparing intensively for the final presentations. Their challenge was how to find ways their company could engage in a major transformation process. Having done their preliminary work, all of them were curious about how their suggestions for strategic renewal would be received by the CEO and the executive team. Would their reactions be positive?

A relative newcomer was volunteered to make the opening presentation. In the middle of her lively introduction, the CEO’s mobile phone rang. To everybody’s surprise, the CEO took the call, walked out of the room, and reappeared 30 minutes later. In his absence, the presenter tried to continue, but was clearly unsure how to proceed while her boss was absent. After the CEO’s return, the steam seemed to have gone out of the presenter. The discussion that followed floundered. To many, it was an opportunity lost.

Incidents like this had occurred before. Many felt that their CEO was insensitive to other people’s needs. But his lack of empathy with his subordinates would cost him dearly. As the strategy meeting was a washout, the expected corporate transformation process never took off. Soon after, the company’s lack of strategic agility contributed to a steep loss in market share, a declining stock price, and a revolt by its major shareholders, which ended in the dismissal of the CEO. Subsequently, most of the members of the executive team were replaced while hundreds of employees were dismissed. Clearly, not paying attention to the thoughts and intentions of others could make the difference between corporate success and failure.

But what is empathy? It’s derived from the Greek words “em” and “pathos,” literally meaning “into feeling.” Empathy refers to our ability to resonate with the feelings of others – to imaginatively share the emotional experience of another person. An ingenious way to sum up empathy is “your pain in my heart.” When we are empathic, we are fully present to what’s alive in the other person in the moment; we comprehend why another person is doing what he or she is doing. To use some everyday expression, we are able to see things through someone else’s eyes. Empathy also relates to our ability to make sense of what is or isn’t being said or what is or isn’t being done. When we are empathetic, we enhance our ability to receive and process information. It is a key ingredient of successful relationships as it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others. Empathy, however, will always involve some kind of guesswork. We’ll never completely know how the other person feels. However, we can try to imagine their feelings, given what we have learned about them.

Empathy is a key dimension of emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to recognize our emotions, understand what they’re telling us, and to realize how they affect people around us. It’s a core component in every human relationship – a cornerstone of interpersonal effectiveness. Empathy helps us understand the unspoken elements of our communication with others. It enables us to be more effective at collaboration and finding solutions.

The term empathy is often used interchangeably with sympathy or compassion but it is not the same thing. Sympathy refers to feelings of compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships another person encounters, while being empathic implies putting ourselves in the shoes of others and understanding what they are feeling. When we express sympathy, we acknowledge another person’s emotional hardships; we have compassion for them, but we don’t necessarily feel what they are feeling. With sympathy we feel for others; with empathy, we feel with them.

Human morality is unthinkable without empathy. But how can we develop it? How does it come about? Most of our ability to correctly read and respond to another’s emotions derives from childhood – what we learned from our parents, and other caregivers. Most likely, empathy started out as an evolutionary developmental mechanism to improve maternal care. Mothers who were attentive to their offspring’s needs would be much more likely to rear successful offspring.

There may also be a neurological component to empathy. The chemical currency of empathy is controlled by a group of neurotransmitters that make us feel good, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Oxytocin in particular seems to play an important role as it is released when people bond socially. Oxytocin helps us to be more aware of the pain of others.

Being empathic has also many benefits from a business perspective. It can be viewed as a soft tool in an executive toolkit that contributes to hard, tangible results. In general, people who are empathic are better leaders and followers. The deceptively simple practice of caring about the well-being of others creates a sense of reciprocity in relationships. What’s more, empathy begets empathy.

Empathic executives are more attuned to the needs of people around them. They are better at managing relationships and relating to others. They are more likely to establish trust, creating safer environments to work in. Empathy also facilitates collaboration. No wonder empathic people are better at teamwork. Working in an empathic organization has a stress-reducing effect. It makes for a more committed workforce and greater motivation to achieve company goals.

But in spite of these benefits, many (often successful) executives are direly lacking in empathy. There are myriad reasons why this is so. Much has to do with their specific character makeup. Self-centered and narcissistic people, described in earlier chapters, find it difficult to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Others may even possess sociopathic traits – these people see others as commodities; they project an air of sincerity but in reality their behavior is all window-dressing. Any form of self-absorption kills empathy, so these types of people find it hard to sustain close committed relationships and friendships. In our increasingly network-oriented society the lack of empathy comes with a steep price attached.

To acquire empathy, we have to learn how to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside and the first step to doing this is to understand ourselves. We need to recognize and accept our own feelings. To start with, we have to learn how to be good listeners (including listening to ourselves). Although this sounds deceptively easy, it’s not. In our digital age, when we are ready prey to many distractions, it’s difficult not to be a multi-tasker. To be truly empathic, we need to be fully present when dealing with others. This means that in the company of others we don’t check our emails, don’t look at our watch, and don’t take calls. We need to be mindfully aware of our surroundings, especially the behaviors and expressions of other people. To acquire this kind of sensitivity, we need to show a genuine interest in the other.

Remaining non-judgmental is another challenge in developing empathy. It’s not easy to figure out how our feelings affect our perceptions, but too easy to pass judgment about whether the other person is right or wrong. We must take care not to dismiss other people’s concerns out of hand, not to interrupt when they are talking, not to rush into giving our opinion. To quote Molière, “One should examine oneself for a very long time before thinking of condemning others.”

Challenging our own preconceived notions implies listening actively to what the other person has to say to make sure that we understand it. This means also tuning in to non-verbal communication. People often communicate what they think or feel non-verbally, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.

Is empathy declining in our narcissistic age? Are we living with an empathy deficit? It’s difficult to tell, although in our increasingly interconnected world, cooperation and communication are more important than ever before. Much of our world’s insensibility and hardness is due to a lack of imagination that prevents awareness of others’ experiences. If everyone had the ability to truly empathize, the world would be a much better place.

Of course, empathy can be taken ad absurdum, as this short tale shows. A wise man was asked to be the arbiter in a complicated case. One of the two parties delivered a long soliloquy about the bad behavior of the other. After listening and reflecting carefully, the wise man said, “You’re right.” Then it was the turn of the second man to speak. He also gave a very impassioned speech about how wrong the first man was. After some thought, the wise man said, “You’re right.”

At this point, one of the witnesses stood up and said, “Hang on, how can two people with such very different opinions both be right?” To which the wise man replied, “You’re right.”

Now everyone was exasperated. Then both men stood, and said to the wise man, “You’re right. We’ll settle the matter between the two of us.”

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries
    • 1
  1. 1.INSEADFontainebleauFrance

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